Step Functions and Loads of Bricks

Step Functions and Loads of Bricks August 18, 2016

One of the many ways our education system gives us unreasonable expectations is the idea that learning is linear. We move from kindergarten to first grade to second grade. We move from elementary school to middle school to high school. We go to college and move from freshman to sophomore to junior to senior. Each step builds on the steps before it, and if you do the work, your knowledge and skills expand and grow.

We see some of this in our religious and spiritual work. OBOD has the three sequential grades of Bard, Ovate, and Druid. Some Wiccan traditions have three degrees. Thelema has eleven, though I’ve had some Thelemites tell me the higher degrees cannot be achieved on this plane of existence (if you disagree feel free to explain in the comments, but I’m not a Thelemite and it’s not relevant to this post one way or the other).

There’s a place for sequential, ordered learning and advancement. But life rarely works that way outside of structured institutions. If I can be a math geek for a moment, life is usually a step function, not a linear function.

linear vs step rev B

This means we do the work day in and day out, year in and year out, and nothing happens – not visibly, anyway. Then one day it hits us like the proverbial ton of bricks. Call it initiation, call it enlightenment, call it moving up and moving on – something big changes and nothing is ever the same again.

It would not be accurate to say I’ve been hit with a ton of bricks – more like a wheelbarrow full of bricks. The step in this particular step function is manageable, but more bricks are coming and they’re coming soon. That’s what happens when you hang out in a brickyard (“I’ll take vaguebooking for $500, Alex”). But a lot of these bricks came at Many Gods West and in the on-going conversations that came out of it. So I think it’s worthwhile to talk about what I’ve learned lately and what I’m going to try to do with it.

I don’t have a whole religious tradition (yet). Back in February I wrote that Druidry is not my religion. I listed the things that are my religion: honoring the Gods, building relationships, caring for Nature, and other activities. For personal practice, that’s enough. But when I leave my altar and move out into the wider polytheist community, how do I identify myself? Who do I gather with? Who helps me deepen my practice, and who can I help deepen theirs?

In the conversations about devotion vs. folklore in contemporary polytheism, it became clear to me that we’re having this problem in large part because we’re trying to decide what polytheism is. And as some of my most vocal critics like to remind me, polytheism isn’t a religion – it’s a religious approach. I have an approach and a practice, but not a whole religion. A good religious tradition has devotional rites and it has shared stories and it has communal activities.

Should I call myself a Celtic Reconstructionist and try to build a restored and reimagined pan-Celtic religion? That would fit in nicely with my Druidry, but there are a few Egyptian deities who might have something to say about it. No, there are no simple answers – I’m going to have to work through this and I expect it will take quite some time. I suspect I’m not the only one in this situation.

A important part of my religious life has concluded. Just before MGW, I turned in the final draft of my first book The Path of Paganism: An Experience-Based Guide to Modern Pagan Practice.  It’s tentatively scheduled for publication next May. When the editor accepted my final draft, one load of bricks was lifted off my shoulders and another load of bricks hit me right in the face.

This is a Paganism 201 book. It does many of the things I do on this blog, namely, it makes a reasoned case for Paganism and polytheism for readers coming out of a mainstream culture where Christian assumptions still dominate and where atheist and humanist assumptions carry far more weight than most of us realize. My writing – and the reading and thinking that support it – has been geared toward this religious outreach and education for the three and a half years I’ve been on Patheos.

That book is done. More importantly, that part of my own spiritual journey is done. I’m out of Christianity, and I was never in atheism. While I will continue to point out errors and misconceptions as they occur (such as Tuesday’s post on Re-Paganing), neither I nor the community at large need more large scale rebuttals. What we need – what I need – are foundations for the Pagan and polytheist religions we’re trying to build.

If you already have a good foundation, great. That’s one of the advantages of working in a tradition that’s at least partially established, or a tradition where there are good historical records. I don’t – and I need one.

Beltane 2015 50My work is here. I love going to conferences, conventions, and retreats – I’ve been going to them since the first OBOD House of Danu Gorsedd in 2009. I love trying to help shape the future of Paganism and polytheism – I’m going to keep showing up.

But my first and primary calling is here, in Denton Texas. My job is to be here for the people who come looking for a good, healthy Pagan group to practice with – just as Summer, Monique, and Cheryl were here for me in 2003. My job is to help lead devotion, to present the Gods and Their stories to the public, and to support those who hear Their call. My first responsibility is to do Paganism and polytheism. Writing about it comes later.

Rhyd Wildermuth once called me “the Pagan equivalent of a parish priest.” He said that based on my writing and social media conversations, but he was more right than he could have known. I’m going to keep traveling as time and money permit, and I’ll quit writing when I move into the Otherworld. But my primary responsibility is my local responsibility, and I need to remember that.

I have more foundational work to do. When you finish high school, it’s assumed you’re ready for college. Not everyone is ready – for a variety of reasons that are important but not relevant here – but that’s the expectation of the linear model.

In life, and especially in religious work, sometimes you finish one task, one quest, one calling, and you find that in order to move on to the next, you’ve got to go back to school. Yes, you can dive right in and figure it out as you go – a process I prefer to the never-ending never-ready preparation advocated by some – but when you know you’re missing some critical skills and knowledge, it’s best to try to learn them sooner rather than later.

Some of this is deeply personal, but much of it is the foundational work necessary to support a whole religious tradition: the context of beliefs and practices, their historical roots, and their contemporary implications. It’s picking up some of the Big Questions of Life and wrestling with them once again. It’s going back to some of the literature I read in my early Pagan years and reading it again, only this time with 15 years more experience.

Though I talk a lot about my personal practices and experiences, I don’t talk much about my plans. I see too many people – Pagan and otherwise – who talk about big plans and then never carry through with them. But I get the feeling I’m not the only one who’s been hit with this particular load of bricks. If some of this sounds familiar, there’s probably a reason. We’re going to need each other’s help.

If this doesn’t seem to fit you, consider yourself fortunate. But don’t get too comfortable – your next big step will come sooner or later.

steps at Dinosaur Valley State Park

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