Caitlin Jenner and the ‘Quiverfull’ of Duggars are perfect symbols for the profound cultural changes tearing this country apart. In their very different ways they represent an epochal shift from a culture predicated on firm, inviolable and hierarchical boundaries, a culture that no longer fits the world we live in, to the birth of one where national, racial, sexual, religious, economic, and ecological boundaries are increasingly open and ill defined and hierarchies relatively flat. The Duggars represent a way of life where everything and everyone knew its place within a hierarchy ulimately divine and rooted in domination of people, of animals, and of the land. Jenner symbolizes the antithesis of that culture: a man and a male ideal of physical prowess at that, choosing to become a woman.
At its root the clash they symbolize is between a society reflecting values rooted in dispersed, rural, hierarchical, agricultural civilizations and one rooted in increasingly integrated, urban, equalitaian, and technological values. This has never happened before, but in different ways it is now happening in the US and some other societies and because it grows out of the vary nature of modernity, it will not go away.
In this transformation Pagan religions are playing a role out of proportion to our numbers.
Worlds that clash
In the US the culture dominating the red states seeks to preserve a hierarchical society where men are above women, Whites above people of color, and ownership of property determines social standing and worth.
By comparison the culture dominating the Blue states tends towards openness on all these counts, accepting intermarriage, and now gay marriage, openness to immigration by Brown people, and a continuing blurring of the racial divide, as symbolized by Obama himself.
Sarah Palin spoke honestly when she considered rural America was the ‘real’ America. For her and her supporters it remains so even as Palin’s own star fades. The problem for this culture is that it is not just Palin’s star that is fading. The culture itself has exhausted its creativity and ability to adapt to new challenges.
Dissolving the old world
Relatively free agricultural societies gave birth to the modern world, which in turn has steadily subverted and dissolved those societies.
• Science has exhausted the authority of the Bible for all able to respect evidence and logic. For those committed to conservative religion all that remains is the strength of their will to believe, regardless of the facts and regardless of logic. This means embracing irrationality is at the core of this culture today. ‘Commitment’ counts and nothing else does.
• Modern science began dissolving boundaries. The world around us is both energy and mass. Atoms are not indivisible. We are a part of the world not separate from it. More recently genes can now be moved from plants into animals, or animals into plants, and the result will be a viable life form. Even without this the traditional concept of an organism has been abandoned. Increasingly biologists consider even human individuals as better described as ecosystems or super-organisms than as traditional organisms. In fundamental ways we might be more like an ant colony than like the traditional individual Western society has so long considered obvious. The same can be said for society, where none of us knows more than the tiniest bit about what makes it possible or how it changes and adapts to new conditions. The agricultural idea of the “renaissance man” is as antiquated as a society based on human and animal power.
• Meanwhile technology has all but ended any innate advantage men had in the world due to their greater physical strength. Even in the military. Cultural change here is slow, but the direction is clear. The culture is playing catch-up to technology.
• Weak as they often are democracy and the values it embodies continue undermining traditional distinctions between classes, genders, and races. Consequently adherents of red state culture are doubling down on limiting it with extreme gerrymandering (if the House represented the popular vote nationally in the last election, Nancy Pelosi would currently be Speaker.) In addition they seek new barriers to voting, provide insufficient resources for polling places in Democratic precincts, and even threaten to game the electoral college in 2016.
• Affordable mass higher education gave us the best higher education system in the world, with students from all over the world coming here to learn. It also gave us the reform minded and anti-war activists of the 60s, the renewal of feminism, and creation of alternative lifestyles that blossomed in the 70s. Despite its threat to our country’s economic and technological vitality, in red states in particular colleges are being starved for funds and made increasingly unaffordable with debt slavery the fate of many students who manage to go. That keeps them at the bottom of the financial hierarchy and too burdened with debt to ask awkward questions or think awkward thoughts.
• The non-cultural problems facing us today are largely problems generated by technology and urbanization. The agricultural mentality and values of the past cannot address them. Global warming is the most obvious, where many red staters say God will not allow it. Others simply reject science. International problems and domestic unrest can be solved best by force, force against people unlike them at home and war waged against people unlike them abroad. But they are helpless in the face of the corporate takeover of the government because they lack the capacity to view the world in more than simple dichotomies. Anything ‘liberals’ or ‘the left’ want is wrong.
• Today’s spiritual challenge is finding modes of engagement with the more-than-human also able to honor the logic and empiricism of the modern world, but valuable as they are, teach these exist within a larger framework of meaning. This framework focuses on the immanent rather than the transcendent, and on experience rather than dogma. The traditional religions of the red states have nothing to offer here.
• The old culture’s moral foundations have withered. It is in keeping with this internal moral bankruptcy that their major leaders and spokespeople are so often exposed as hypocrites, liars, and crooked. But the problem is not just at the top. Divorce is highest in red states and lowest in the first blue states that allowed gay marriage. Support for torture is highest among conservative and right wing Christians, and lowest among atheists. The pattern exists from top to bottom.
The Duggars represent this failing culture of rigid boundaries and hierarchies, and the corruption now exposed at their core reflects the corruption infecting that culture’s institutions as a whole. That this dying culture no longer can stand on its own in the world is symbolized by their home schooling their children to instill a religious fanaticism that would vanish were their children more integrated into the world. They must seal themselves off from the world to survive and then, they hope, wage religious war against it.
Despite herself leaning Republican Caitlin Jenner symbolizes the permeability of the strongest biological boundary, that between male and female. Her psychological openness demolishes the gender boundaries at the heart of the old culture at its most basic level: that men are men and women are women. Other possibilities exist. This is why the party she is most attracted to is repelled by her and all she stands for. The problem for her here is much deeper than issues.
The undermining of sexual boundaries began with interracial marriages, marriages that were often illegal when I was a kid. Today our president is the product of one. This dissolution of an old boundary has been followed by gays achieving legal equality, and now the rise to prominence of bi and trans people. As to where this might end, the science fiction novel 2312 Kim Stanley Robinson offers a vivid vision of transformed gender relations in the future. Regardless of how far Robinson’s vision ultimately is realized boundaries once regarded as eternal are in rapid dissolution.
In Faultlines I argued the cultural and political turmoil we are undergoing is rooted in the change from a society rooted in masculine values to one rooted in feminine ones, or a balance of the two. This transformation is reflected at all levels of society. It would seem that cities and technology are far removed from valuing nature and the feminine. But our world is nothing if not filled with paradoxes, and on the surface one of the strangest is that people in cities look upon nature as good in itself to a far greater degree than those in the country, who tend to see it as a resource best controlled for human use. We see this distinction again regarding the feminine. The most rural states are the least hospitable to feminine values whereas feminism has always had urban roots.
The declining culture of boundaries has lost its capacity to do more than say “no.” Its vision amounts to little more than opposing whatever ‘liberals’ want, and beyond that doubling down on dominating those weaker than they. Its masculine values manifest increasingly as pathological and parasitic rather than healthy and contributing to society as a whole.
We Pagans are a part of this shift.
Most of us focus more on the sacred feminine than the sacred masculine. Or we seek a balance between them. The feminine is associated with openness, mutability, transformation, She is the yin to the Masculine yang. “She changes everything She touches, and everything She touches changes.” As I show in Faultlines, many women in other religions, such as Buddhism and liberal Christianity and Judaism have written they were inspired by Starhawk’s workshops to seek a place for the divine feminine within their own traditions.We also honor and interact with a variety of Gods and spirits whose own boundaries are ill defined and with different aspects that can even be treated as distinct beings.
Outside the spiritual dead end of conservative religion the sacred feminine is growing in recognition and celebration.
In interfaith circles we have become leaders in recognizing the importance of the earth and the other-than-human beings with whom we share it. Mainstream religions are coming to positions common among most NeoPagan religions for many years, and among older Pagan traditions for centuries or longer. The boundaries between the human and other-than-human are becoming porous not just for us, but for other traditions. The irony is that it took a urban and technological society to underline nature’s value even when we do not control it, which had been the perpetual challenge of agricultural societies.
Many of us also engage in forms of trance ‘possession’ or spirit incorporation, the ultimate blurring of boundaries between what the other culture views as the world of matter and the world of spirit. Similarly, we are as a community very open to experimenting with changes in consciousness. Many use entheogens, which terrify the old order and its psychological need for rigid boundaries.
It is no accident that we are on the leading edge of respecting all peaceful ways of being human as legitimate, and not just our own. We know that even for ourselves, our sense of self is mutable and can change. And that is all right. Gay Pagans found far less opposition to being listened to and respected than in more traditional religious communities. The same is true for other forms of sexual and gender identification.
Learning how to do this is sometimes confusing to all involved. We are in the midst of creating a new culture where the old one has failed. But there is little doubt the bulk of us accept that task. That so many Americans today now use the term “she” for Caitlin Jenner is evidence this change is transforming all who are open to the new world aborning.