The Hell that doesn’t exist has frozen over: I agree with Ross Douthat.
For those of you who don’t recognize the name, Douthat is a conservative columnist for The New York Times. He’s an articulate and thoughtful conservative in the mold of William F. Buckley, not a conspiracy-spouting populist like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz… though he usually arrives at the same policy positions.
Earlier this month Douthat wrote an opinion piece titled “Be open to spiritual experience, but be really careful.” The NYT site is paywalled, but this syndicated edition at the Salt Lake Tribune is not. The subtitle is “with the decline of traditional religion, you don’t know what you are getting.”
As a practitioner of a non-traditional religion (or perhaps, the modern reimagining of a very old tradition), I completely agree.
Douthat begins by saying:
the dissolution of the old order of American religion — the decline of churches and denominations and the rise of deinstitutionalized spirituality — means that more and more religious lives are lived in-between worldviews, in experimental territory where it’s a mistake to expect coherence, theological consistency, a definite set of prior assumptions or beliefs.
In this column I want to defend the rationality of this kind of spiritual experimentation and then to warn about its dangers.
He gives three examples: people who experiment with witchcraft, people who experiment with DMT, and a new statue outside a New York courthouse “meant to symbolize female power in a historically male-dominated legal world and to protest Roe v. Wade’s reversal.” He sees all of them as understandable given the lack of religious consensus in this country, but also as potentially dangerous.
I’m not Douthat’s target audience. He’s mainly talking to atheists and other materialists who believe there’s no danger in spiritual experimentation, because there are no spirits to cause danger. Or if there are, they just want the best for us. He says:
it’s important to emphasize something taught by almost every horror movie but nonetheless skated over in a lot of American spirituality: the importance of being really careful in your openness, and not just taking the beneficence of the metaphysical realm for granted.
Douthat is a Catholic monotheist – I’m a Pagan polytheist. But we’re in agreement here. We live in a world full of spirits. Many of them are ambivalent towards humans and some are antagonistic. “The Universe” is not a divine helicopter parent just waiting to give us stuff if only we’ll “claim” it. Even the many Gods often influence and impact our lives in ways that we would rather they not.
As for magic, I’m fond of the line from the musical Into The Woods: “wishes come true, not free.”
I agree with what Douthat says in this piece and I’m glad he said it.
I want to talk about what he left out.
“Broken down structures” are crumbling for a reason
Near the end of his essay, Douthat says:
there’s reason to worry about a society in which structures have broken down and masses of people are going searching without maps, or playing around in half-belief, or deploying, against what remains of Christianity, symbols that invoke multiple spiritualities at once.
Why have religious structures broken down? Because they’re no longer relevant to the people they’re entrusted with serving. They’re more intent on maintaining (and in many cases, reimposing) archaic social norms than with promoting spiritual growth. They make claims of exclusive possession of Truth that cannot be substantiated and that run contrary to the experiences and reasoning of ordinary people.
And they no longer have the political or social power to compel people to go along with them. Christianity has been declining for 500 years and that decline has steepened in this century. Any problem that flows from crumbling structures needs to be addressed with structural changes. Few churches have shown any willingness to do that.
As a Pagan, that’s not my problem. My job is to be here for those who are looking for spiritual depth in Nature, in magic, and especially in relationships with the many Gods.
If the map doesn’t lead where you want to go, get a different map
Douthat says “masses of people are going searching without maps” and he’s right. His Catholic church has a well-established map for spiritual exploration. But it’s a very limited map, with huge sections of territory either marked “off limits” or simply not included.
And some people aren’t allowed access to the map.
Our ancestors had more maps. They showed different routes to different places. Most of those maps are lost, some to ordinary decay and some to deliberate destruction.
Some of us are trying to recreate those maps. Others are starting from scratch, exploring off the edge of the current maps and trying to leave good directions for those who come after us.
We’re doing this because we want to go to those places. We want to meet the Gods of our ancestors (whether our ancestors of blood or our ancestors of spirit), we want to form and maintain relationships with the spirits of the places where we live, and we want to learn magic. This is a challenging world and it’s only getting more challenging. We need all the allies we can get. We need all the skills we can get.
We have some maps. I drew (wrote) two of them and I hope to draw more, either here on the blog or with future books. Other “explorers” have drawn their own maps. Where ever you want to go there’s plenty of help getting started.
But keep practicing and sooner or later you’ll find yourself off the map. The answer is to keep moving and take good notes, not to reach back for a map that leads to some place you already know you don’t want to go.
Nothing generates belief like results
“Playing around in half-belief” is dangerous. In my experience, though, the primary danger is to comfortable half-beliefs.
While research shows that believing in magic brings better magical results, magic isn’t powered by faith. Magic is powered by action. Do the spells – and do them right – and you’ll get results.
Maybe the first time is coincidence. Maybe the second time is confirmation bias. But sooner or later, it becomes easier to just accept that magic is real than to keep rationalizing it away.
Sometimes “results” are scary. I once watched someone have a first-hand encounter with a God and shortly after declare themselves an atheist. It was easier for them to deny their own experience than to deal with the implications of real Gods who are active in our world.
Can I be honest with you? I still get scared occasionally. My calling is to be a bridge from the Otherworld to the mundane world, but the vast majority of my time and attention is spent here. Sometimes I get a little too comfortable with “here.” And then I get smacked in the face with a reminder that yes, “all this” is real. That happened this week. No, I won’t write about it. Ask me about it in person and I’ll explain.
But after I composed myself, I was back where I always am. If this is real – and I’m convinced it is – then I want to learn as much about it as possible.
Even if I don’t have a map to help me navigate.
Other religions should not be our enemies – but some are
We live in the most religiously diverse society in the history of humanity. Contrary to what the religious exclusivists believe, this is a good thing. People can find the set of beliefs and practices that call to them. If they try, they can find others on the same path – religion is best done in community.
I’m a Pagan. Christians and Buddhists and others aren’t my competitors. We do different things in different ways for different reasons. If you’re interested in what I believe and do, I’ll be happy to help you get started. If you’d be better off practicing Zen Buddhism (and to be clear: that’s your call, not mine) that’s where I want you to be. It’s not a contest.
Except some religions insist that it is a contest. And if they can’t win with honest persuasion, they’re more than happy to use the power of government to compel the rest of us to live the way they think we ought to live.
These religions are my enemies. They’re the enemies of every person who values freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression.
So when Douthat complains about people who “deploy mixed symbols” “against what remains of Christianity” he needs to understand that few of us (on the Pagan side, anyway) have anything against the followers of Jesus. Many of them are our friends and allies.
But those who would re-establish Christendom are our enemies and will be opposed with all legal and ethical means.
Spiritual experimentation is dangerous
Ross Douthat is right: spiritual experimentation is dangerous. I join him in encouraging everyone to be careful and pay attention. Not every spirit you encounter is your friend.
But unlike Douthat, I have no regrets and no misgivings about the direction spiritual experimentation is taking. His tradition is still meaningful and helpful to some, but it doesn’t speak to others and it actively excludes many. Other traditions, other paths, and other practices are both necessary and helpful.
And some of us are doing our best to draw maps for those who come after us.
For a different perspective on Douthat’s column, see this piece by Nathan Hall on Friday’s The Wild Hunt titled NYT prints advice for new Witches – from a conservative Catholic.