Know Your Theological Boundaries

Know Your Theological Boundaries February 24, 2013

Theology is a speculative process. Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, or any other flavor – the study of God or Goddess or gods and goddesses is inherently subjective. Though we can and should approach this topic with all the reason and logic at our command, the kind of experimentation we find in other fields of study is rarely possible.

Still, theology and similar practitioner-focused religious studies are helpful. They help us form a framework for our beliefs and practices. That framework in turn gives us a language for describing our religious experiences. It helps us interpret our experiences in light of the experiences of others in our tradition who time has shown to be reliable and helpful. It means we don’t all have to re-invent the religious wheel for ourselves.

Because theology is a speculative process dealing with highly subjective topics, we have great leeway in how we choose to construct our religious frameworks. We do not, however, have the leeway to construct a religious framework that violates the laws of Nature or contradicts established facts, and we should take great care in constructing a framework that contradicts the consensus of science, history or other academic disciplines.

[I’m aware that “consensus” doesn’t mean “proof” and that scientific and historical consensus has been wrong before. I’m saying if you want to go against it you’d better have a stronger reason than “the consensus goes against my religion.”]

Most Pagans understand this. Most Pagans have a respect for science, if not an outright love for it. Most Pagans understand the difference between mythology and history. Most.

I bring all this up because recently I’ve found myself getting hit from both sides of this situation. Not hit hard and certainly not attacked, but on one hand I’ve come across people under the “Pagan umbrella” who are reading myth as history. In one case their reading is possible but unlikely; in another it goes against scientific and historical consensus.

Now, I see no harm in acting as if the gods of our ancestors actually did what the storytellers say they did or in acting as if the heroes of our ancestors were historical people who actually did the mighty deeds they’re credited with doing. I think we can get the full benefit of the stories by reading them mythically, but if reading them historically helps you better connect to the stories and the people and gods in them, have at it.

The danger is that in doing so, you can build up a theological house of cards, with one premise after another based on a historical reading of myth. Then if you come to the point where the historicity of a myth is clearly shown to be untrue, you find your whole religion crumbling out from under you. This is why fundamentalist Christians fight so hard against the established truth of evolution – if there is no historical Adam and Eve, there is no Original Sin and their salvation narrative goes out the window.

The other danger is that reading a myth historically limits the story to a single place and time. A myth, though, conveys timeless truths. Its value isn’t as a report of something that happened, but as a vehicle for teaching us who we are, whose we are, where we came from, where we’re going, and what we’re going to do when we get there. It tells us what’s important and how we should live. If we’re focused on “just the facts” we’ll miss a lot of Truth.

On the other hand I’ve had well-meaning people ask “how can you believe in gods and magic?” What most of them really mean is “how can you believe in a god who isn’t my god?” To them I’ll just say the world as we experience it is much more easily explained by many gods of limited power than by one god of unlimited power. The difference in an atheist and a monotheist is that the monotheist disbelieves in a million gods and the atheist disbelieves in a million and one – be aware of your cultural assumptions.

Almost all of us have religious experiences. Some are small and some are large; most are so fleeting we either don’t recognize them for what they are or we try cling to them long after they’ve past. But we do have them: moments of wonder and awe and of clarity and lucidity, transcendent moments where time and space seem to meld together, prophetic dreams, signs and omens, and that movement of Spirit (or spirits) that catches us at just the right time.

If you take off the blinders of orthodox monotheism on one side and of scientific materialism on the other you’ll see there are many ways to interpret those experiences. Which one is right? A few are demonstrably false, but most can neither be confirmed nor rejected. A better question is which one is meaningful and helpful to you? Which one gives you strength? Which one encourages you to work toward a better world here and now? Which helps you take care of yourself and your family? Which one helps you deal with the human predicament of understanding you’re alive but knowing some day you will die?

If you find a traditional Christian interpretation most helpful, fine. Loving your god with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself is a great way to go through life.

If you find a strictly Naturalistic interpretation most helpful, fine. The world needs more rational thinking and the Universe is pretty amazing even if the physical world is all there is.

As for me, I go where the evidence leads. I can’t believe things that violate the laws of Nature, and I give great credence to scientific and historical consensus – these are some of my boundaries. If the evidence is inconclusive – and in the case of religious matters it almost always is – then I follow my heart. And I do a lot more good as a committed Pagan than I ever did as an unenthusiastic Christian. If you want to know specifically what that means, I wrote about it in some detail last year.

I continue to build a theological framework to better understand my religious experiences and to better relate to my goddesses and gods and to their realm. I hope you will too.

I know I promised to write on liminal zones next, but this jumped ahead of it. Liminal zones are still on the “to be blogged” list and I will address them at some point in the not-too-distant future.

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  • Thank you so much for writing this, especially after that one fellow who commented on your last post.

    • Thanks, Conor. That was one of the drivers behind it, but not the only one.

  • Enjoyed this, thanks! (Especially the dif between a monotheist and an atheist)

    • Thanks, Molly. I hesitated to include it – I really didn’t want to offend monotheists. But I do want them – and everyone else – to look critically at the unstated assumptions in their culture and in their religion.

  • Barbaryan

    Thanks John you write very well for a person who has very little idea how spiritual world works. Why don’t you try to ask your God directly and then look for material evidence? Who is you God by the way?
    To fundamental Christians – story of Adam and Eve correlates with our stories, grave of Adam is in Lanka so you should look there for the father of your species.
    Goy Rode!!!

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    I like your take on this. My personal definition of a fundamentalist is “a person who takes his mythology literally.” As Sallustius said, “Myth is that which never was, but always is.”

    • There’s been a lot of talk about fundamentalism in Paganism recently and much of that discussion hasn’t been helpful – I made a special effort to avoid the “f-word” in this post. But since you raised the topic, I don’t think taking myths literally makes someone a fundamentalist. What makes someone a fundamentalist is refusing to admit there’s even a chance he or she might be wrong.

  • Have you read ‘Mythistory’ by Joseph Mali? I used it in my master’s thesis. Of course, I haven’t looked at it since, but this post makes me want to revisit it. I think myths are very helpful in understanding history but are NOT history themselves.

    • Niki, I haven’t, but it certainly looks interesting. I have an anthropologist friend who says “history tells us as much about the people who wrote it as it does about the people they wrote about.”

  • Fantastic post, John. I especially like your views on theology having to accord with what we know scientifically. It’s a big problem in all religions, and within the pagan community, when people claim supernatural exemptions from the laws of physics for their favourite deity or miracle.

    • Bad science makes bad religion, and vice versa. Christian fundamentalists deny basic scientific truths and immature Pagans make the silliest unverifiable claims about quantum physics (as an engineer, I know just enough about quantum physics to know it’s really complicated). Meanwhile, both groups’ religion would stand just fine on its own, if they’d let it.

      • ‘Bad science makes bad religion’. I love it, and I might have to steal it!
        I’ve come across my share of evolution denial and quantum woo in both the Christian and Pagan worlds to know how annoying it can be!

  • The difference in an atheist and a monotheist is that the monotheist disbelieves in a million gods and the atheist disbelieves in a million and one – be aware of your cultural assumptions.

    That is a line for the ages, dear friend! Nicely stated!

    This is a problem that far too many people don’t seem to be able to even acknowledge, i.e. the non-overlapping magisteria of science (which is great at describing the world and how it functions) and religion (which is great at trying to give options for “what it all means” and how to live in the world), and how they really don’t have to conflict, nor to match up to one another perfectly at every possible juncture. Questions of meaning rarely depend on facts; questions of fact are entirely independent of meaning.

    • Thanks! This exact wording is mine, but I’ve heard atheists use variants on the “one less god” argument numerous times. As I told Molly, I hesitated to use it, but I do want to encourage monotheists to be aware of the unstated assumptions behind their beliefs.

  • Pete Mc Nesbit

    Raised Catholic, love to read science articles, now leaning secular humanist. God’s, Goddesses and Beings of Wonder yes, I believe there is more than one deity in the cosmos. And yes limited not “All Powerful” in design.
    As a former professional cook, I believe in floor gods. When you ignore the floor of a restaurant kitchen all sorts of mayhem can occur. I therefore believe that with proper respect for the surface you work upon, you will be treated with staying in an upright manner. The sharp blades god, the cooler gods,the fryer gods and the correct temperature gods are also not to be denied. Many will think I mock the gods, not true the world is filled with many gods, not just the “One God”. Does this make me a pagan? In many minds yes, I prefer to believe aha moments are a precious gift from transcendent life.

    • I have friends who feel the gods and goddesses who got all the good publicity are too distant to care much about humans. But the household spirits? They make regular offering to them, and the spirits reciprocate.

  • Jennifer L.

    >>On the other hand I’ve had well-meaning people ask “how can you believe in gods and magic?” What most of them really mean is “how can you believe in a god who isn’t my god?”

    I’ve often considered this; it’s especially glaring when you talk to someone who willingly talks about “Greek mythology” or “Norse mythology” or “Egyptian mythology”, but never “Christian mythology” or “Jewish mythology” or “Muslim mythology”. When those people use the word “myth”, what they really mean is “lies”. Or “children’s stories”. Or “stupidity”.

    I have no problems simultaneously believing in science and religion; why *shouldn’t* the gods abide by the laws of physics that govern infinity? I’m quite sure that they don’t have to, but things are so much easier that way.

    • My experience is that no one and no thing can break the laws of Nature: not humans and not gods. What we can do is to improve the odds and make something improbable more likely. We can do it – the gods can do it far better.

  • Lydia Alexander

    Here’s a quip from my naturalist take on these matters: Subjectivity without objectivity is like morality without oxytocin. Scientific materialism may well be a correct explanation of our world; you can’t have abstract relationships between or among physical things that are correctly or incorrectly represented without having those physical things in the first place. You need a body vulnerable to death and suffering and capable of caring about the death and suffering of others to have the relationships among bodies that are abstractly represented in what we human beings know as morality.