A Devotional Practice with the World at its Center

A Devotional Practice with the World at its Center March 8, 2014

In this post I want to write about my evolution toward a devotional religious practice with the world at its center.  I am still the process of working out what that means.  And I hope to write more about it in future posts.  For now, I just want to share how I arrived at this idea.  This is going to be a bit involved, with a lot of moving parts that are just now settling into place for me.  But for those of you who asked me to write more about my personal spirituality, and less about theology, this is for you.

After a rainstorm, near my house

A World-Affirming Religion

“Teach me to love this world.”

This has been my nightly prayer for the last three years.  I sacralize my altar space, invoke my gods, and then I ask them to teach me to love this world.

You see, I grew up in a world-denying religion.  Well, that’s not really fair.  Like much of Christianity, Mormonism can be experienced as world-denying.  But many Christians and many Mormons actually do practice their religion in a world-affirming way.  Let’s say then that I experienced Mormonism as world-denying — probably due largely to my own biological and psychological predisposition.  And I sought out Paganism as a cure for my tendency toward solipsism.

When I came to Paganism, it was because I felt the truth of Albert Camus’s words: “If there is a sin against life, it consists […] in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.”  And Paganism taught me that there is another world, but it is this one (paraphrasing Paul Eluard).  This I believe.  But even after becoming Pagan, I still felt divided.  I began this blog to work out that sense of division in me, between a drive toward escape on the one hand and a longing for depth on the other, between a desire for intellectual control on the one hand and a need for emotional freedom on the other.

Over time, I have felt this simple prayer, Teach me to love this world, work its magic in my, bringing me down to earth and cultivating a passion for life, this life.

Humanistic and Naturalistic Paganism

There are many forms of Paganism, but my natural disposition toward intellectual control led me to Humanistic or Naturalistic Paganism, which avoids all appeals to the supernatural or metaphysical and is suspicious of words like “spirit”, “magic”, and “gods”.  If Wicca is the Catholicism of Paganism, and devotional polytheism is the Evangelicalism of Paganism, then Humanistic/Naturalistic Paganism is the Unitarianism of Paganism.  Not coincidentally, I also started attending my local Unitarian church around the same time I became more open about my Paganism.

But as I worked out what Humanistic Paganism and Unitarianism meant to me, I felt that something was missing from both these paths.  About a year and a half ago, I wrote series of posts entitled, “One Needful Thing”, taking issue with what I perceived to be lacking in Unitarianism and religious humanism generally (which includes Humanistic Paganism).  In Part 1, I discussed the how even the founders of Unitarianism became its critics, perceiving that it lacked something, variously identified as enthusiasm and self-transcendence.  In Part 2, I elaborated on this missing element, drawing on the writings of Carl Jung, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and others.  And in Part 3, I speculated about how a Humanistic Paganism might recover this missing element.

Just before a storm, from my backyard

Self-Transcendence

The key, I felt, was self-transcendence.  I identify primarily as a Self-centric Pagan in my “Three Centers” diagram of the contemporary Pagan community.  (The other centers are earth-centered and deity-centered).  “Self-centric” does not mean “self centered” in the pejorative sense.  Self-centric Paganism is not ego-centered.  The “Self” refers to that larger sense of “self” which transcends the ego.  It is sometimes called the “Big Self” or “Deep Self”, which some religions identify with “God”.  The goal of Self-centric Paganism is connection with this larger Self, just as the goals of earth-centered Paganism and deity-centered Paganism are connection with nature and the gods, respectively.  Ideally, a Self-centric Paganism is not about “navel gazing”, though, unless that “navel” is the “World Navel”.  Self-centric Paganism does lead within, but ideally the path into the depths of one’s soul opens up on the other side to the world.  I think this is what Jung was hinting at when he wrote that nature and the psyche (soul) are the same.  Just as nature extends “within” to include the psyche, so psyche extends “without” to include nature.  This is how Jung’s student, James Hillman, could talk about of “a psyche the size of the earth”.  But saying this is much easier than realizing it in practice.

Each of the Three Centers has its unique challenges (something I’ve written about before here).  The unique challenge presented by Self-centric Paganism is the fact that it is so easy to confuse the ego-self with the Self.  Psychoanalysts call this “inflation”.  The Self can be even more elusive for Self-centric Pagans than the gods are for deity-centered Pagans.  I think this is what St. Augustine meant when he said “God is closer to me than I am to myself.”  So while Self-centric Paganism ideally does not mean ego-centeredness, it can often often fall into the trap of ego-centeredness — as I know from my own experience.  It was too easy for me to let my Self-centric Paganism devolve into ego-centeredness.  Which is why I was drawn to the devotional practices of deity-centered Pagans, those Pagans who insist on the “otherness” of the gods.  Might they hold the key to the door out of my ego?

Devotional Religion

In the third part of my “One Needful Thing” series, I gave three proposals for ways to find what I felt was missing from Naturalistic Paganism.  The third proposal was to “Engage in Devotional Practice”.  I observed that devotional practice is not usually found (or recognized) in humanistic* or naturalistic** religious contexts.  Some might even say that a humanistic or naturalistic practice is actually defined by its non-devotional nature.  In 1859, Theodore Parker wrote that the Unitarians of his day had ceased to fear “the great and dreadful God” of monotheism, but they had not quite learned to love the Universe.  The same could be said of many Unitarians today, including myself.  I wondered whether it was possible to develop a devotional practice in relation to an non-anthropomorphized universe.  I speculated that, while the forms of devotional worship may be alien to many Humanistic Pagans, some might actually be practicing a kind of devotionalism toward nature already.  How then might I translate devotional religious practices into a Humanistic Pagan context?

This was about 18 months ago.  In the intervening time, I undertook to learn more about devotional practice in a Pagan context.  For this, I turned to deity-centered polytheists to learn what devotional practice looks like.  I was (and still am) impressed by the passion, the soulfulness, and the piety of polytheistic practice.  Indeed, devotional polytheism seemed to have that “one needful thing” that I had found lacking in my own Humanistic Paganism.  However, the metaphysical claims of some devotional polytheists were antithetical to my naturalistic orientation.  While I am drawn to the passion of the practice, the reification of the gods was something I could not accept.  After struggling with this conflict, I finally decided that I was just not looking for the encounters with historical deities or personal gods that are characteristic of contemporary devotional polytheistic practice.  Just before heading off to Pantheacon this year, I wrote: “Just like in e. e. cumming’s poem, I have pinched and poked and prodded, squeezed and buffeted the ‘sweet spontaneous earth’ that she might conceive gods, and she answers me only with spring.”

What Happened at Pantheacon

This brings me to Pantheacon.  I’ve already written about some of the experiences I had a Pantheacon this year, from meeting great people, and attending great rituals and workshops, to attending the Wiccanate Privilege discussion.  But I have not yet shared with you  what was the single most important experience I had during the conference, one which made me realize that what I am looking for is a devotional practice that places the world at its center.  This realization happened gradually and culminated in the Kali Puja ritual organized by Sharanya.

From my visit to Muir Woods

First, before the Con started, Ruth and I went to Muir Woods.  It is a sacred place to me, where I easily feel my immersion in the natural world.  It set the tone for the entire Conference for me, and opened me up to realization I was going to have.  Then, on the first evening of the Con, I had the first hint of this realization.  Ruth and I participated in a ritual organized by T. Thorn Coyle.  At one point in the ritual, Thorn asked those present to think of the name by which the divine calls to them.  I thought about it and a name came to me, seemingly out of nowhere … “Beloved”.  I thought it was strange, but it felt right.  It wasn’t until later that the name fit into the larger picture for me.

Later in the Con, Ruth and I attended a workshop led by LaSara Firefox and Robert Allen entitled, “Mystical Love: Encountering the Divine Other.”  I chose this workshop primarily because of the title.  In the workshop, LaSara and Robert drew on the writings of mystics through the ages to develop the idea that we can encounter the Divine through another person and eventually transcend our ego-consciousness in this way.  It was interesting that they described it as a form of bhakti yoga.  Bhakti yoga is the yoga or path of devotion.  It involves fostering love and surrendering to God (or a god).  The workshop got me thinking about the idea of encountering divinity through a passionate relationship with another person.  And it was a short step from there to the idea of encountering God through a passionate relationship with the entire world.  It was then that I remembered a book that I bought a while ago, but never got around to reading: The World is a Waiting Lover by Trebbe Johnson, which is right along these lines.

The Kali Puja Ritual

But the most important experience I had was at the Kali Puja ritual organized by Chandra Alexandre and Sharanya.  I had been to this ritual at the last Pantheacon I attended, so I knew what to expect, but this time I had a very different experience.  (Let me preface what follows by saying that this is how I experienced and interpreted the ritual, and other present may have had different experiences and interpretations.)  The Kali Puja ritual is a devotional ritual.  There are expressions of love, gratitude, and surrender to the goddess Kali.  Outwardly, the ritual has the form of the worship of a single Indian goddess.  But this was not deity-centered ritual, per se.  Kali is an expression of the universal Goddess, the Divine Feminine, which emphasizes her antinomian, relational, embodied, cyclical and chthonic characteristics.  She is manifest in the physical world and in our own bodies.  While, in a superficial sense, the focus of the ritual seemed to be on the goddess Kali, in actuality the focus was on the Goddess as experienced by and manifest through each of the people present.  Unlike deity-centered ritual, in which any benefit to the participants is secondary to the benefit to the gods, the goal of the Kali Puja was the transformation of the participants.

There was one point in the ritual when Chandra invited those who were menstruating, had recently given birth, or had just had sex to stand and be honored.  The last time I had attended, my wife was not with me so I did not stand.  Obviously, the only way a man would stand in this context is if he had had sex recently.  This time we did stand.  (It was the day after Valentines Day after all!)  I thought about staying on my knees and hiding, but it seemed wrong.  And then everyone in the room bowed to those who were standing.  It was one of the most sublimely humbling experiences of my life.  I felt like I was standing naked before all the world, but unashamed.  I was acutely aware of my maleness, but I also felt something else that transcended gender.  Someone from a monotheistic religion looking at this might have thought that those bowing were worshipping me and the others standing.  But what they were honoring was the Goddess manifest though us, through our bodies.  I knew that it was not me that was being worshipped, but the Goddess.  I have never experienced a Drawing Down before, but I imagine that what I felt standing there was a little like that.  I felt, more than ever before in my life, that I was manifesting the Goddess — the Goddess who is the creative, erotic, fleshy, physical world itself.  And here was a devotional ritual with the world at its center.

The plant in my office

A Devotional Practice with the World at its Center

After the Kali Puja ritual, I started to put these pieces together.

I have been so distracted over the last 18 months by conflict over theological question like the nature of the polytheistic gods, that I had lost sight of why I had gone looking for those gods in the first place.  I realized that devotional practice is not limited to deity-centered religion.  There can be an earth-centered or nature-centered kind of devotion too.  What I needed was to develop a devotional religious practice, not toward gods, but toward the world.  I needed to embrace the world as my Beloved (there’s that name again), as my waiting lover.  The world is that Divine Other I have been seeking who can draw me out of my ego.  And I need a religious practice that will affirm, encourage, and sustain this embrace.

I hear the world calling me with the voice of a lover:

“You called me: here I am. Driven by the Spirit far from humanity’s caravan routes, you dared to venture into the untouched wilderness; grown weary of abstractions, of attenuations, of the wordiness of social life, you wanted to pit yourself against Reality entire and untamed.

“You had need of me in order to grow; and I was waiting for you in order to be made holy.

“Always you have, without knowing it, desired me; and always I have been drawing you to me.

“And now I am established on you for life, or for death. You can never go back, never return to commonplace gratifications or untroubled worship. He who has once seen me can never forget me: he must either damn himself with me or save me with himself.

“Are you coming?”

— From Hymn of the Universe by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

What exactly this looks like in practice is something I am still working out and which I hope to share with you in future posts.

 

* “Humanistic” does not mean human-centered.  Humanistic religion begins with the premise that the source of human values should be located in human experience, not in divine dictates.

** In this context, “naturalistic” refers to philosophical naturalism which eschews all appeals to supernatural or metaphysical explanations.

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