Many Pagans are on a quest for the authentic Self. This is often visualized as something we already possess; we just have to clear away the accretions caused by so-called civilization. In this model, the true Self can be found by getting in touch with Nature.
The other day, I had an interesting discussion with Brenton Dickieson about the shape of the spiritual life.
I said, if I was to attribute a shape to my spirituality, it would be a tree, connecting spirit and matter, the heavens and the Earth, the human and the divine. If you think about the shape of a tree, its roots mirror its branches.
I’ve often said that Terry Pratchett was one of the greatest Pagan theologians, although he wasn’t a Pagan. In his books Small Gods, Pyramids, and the series about the witches, he often explored ideas about how gods might might come into being, and how they interact with the world. He was also, in a quiet and humorous way, a passionate advocate of thinking about things more deeply, looking beyond the surface of things, and being compassionate. (If you missed that about his writing, read it again.)
In the Tiffany Aching series, there’s a great passage about first thoughts, second thoughts, and third thoughts:
“First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft.”
― Terry Pratchett,
This Fall I’m offering Paganism and the Body, a 14-week graduate-level online class in body theology and sexual ethics, at Cherry Hill Seminary. Some of you may have already heard about CHS’s uncertain future, so this may be the last time a class like this is available for some years. If you’re thinking about signing up, please do it soon! We start Sept. 12.
Additionally, I just noticed that the price of Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective has popped up again to its retail price on Amazon. (There are some copies from third-party sellers still available for around $50.) If the price of the book is a problem, don’t worry; talk to me and we’ll make other arrangements.
In the meantime, here’s a sneak peek at the syllabus! And here’s where you can register. [Write me at chkraemer13 at gmail dot com if you haven’t taken a CHS class before — I believe you’ll need instructor permission.]
Note: This syllabus is subject to change.
Course Number and Title: N6650 Paganism and the Body
Semester: Spring 2016
Class meeting time: Mondays, 9pm ET
Instructor(s): Christine Hoff Kraemer, PhD
Description of the Course
For most Pagans, the human body and the manifest world are sacred centers of religious practice. But what are the consequences of that belief for our daily lives? What do our Pagan theologies of the body call us to do in terms of justice work? Because of the significant percentage of gender and sexual minorities in the Pagan movement, this class will have a special focus on sexual ethics and alternative sexualities and gender expressions. We will also explore other important aspects of embodiment such as health and disability; race; relationship with food, water, and the natural environment; and more.
Prerequisite: C5121 Contemporary Global Paganisms OR C5141 Introduction to Pagan Theology OR written permission of the instructor
- Jennifer Hunter, Rites of Pleasure: Sexuality in Wicca and NeoPaganism, Citadel Press, 2004
- Christine Hoff Kraemer, Eros and Touch from a Pagan Perspective: Divided for Love’s Sake, Routledge, 2013
- A book of your choice on embodiment issues
Other readings will be posted as PDFs or links to web pages in the Moodle classroom.
This course is intended to provide you with an introduction to contemporary thought examining embodiment issues in a Pagan religious context. Our study will include both academic peer-reviewed articles and personal or journalistic accounts by Pagan practitioners and others. These goals will be achieved through regular reading, discussion, and writing. You will also need to demonstrate your engagement and understanding of the material through a final project.
By the end of this class, you should be able to:
- Articulate your own religious beliefs about bodies and embodiment
- Reflect critically and constructively on existing theologies of embodiment
- Have the foundation to deal sensitively and knowledgeably with both Pagans and non-Pagans around issues of the body
Paganism and the Body is a graduate-level course. Students will be expected to digest difficult written material and attend discussions prepared with their own observations and questions. The instructor’s role in the course is primarily as a facilitator and knowledge resource; it is the students who will decide what elements of the assigned readings we will explore most deeply.
Forum posts may be written conversationally. For formal written assignments, students are expected to adhere to academic writing conventions, including the use of proper citation format (Chicago, MLA, or another academic style). The Office of Assertion by Scott F. Crider is recommended as a good basic text on academic writing.
Because clear and mechanically correct writing is essential for effective communication, grammar and organization will be considered in the evaluation process. If successful academic writing has been a challenge for you in the past, it is recommended that you submit a rough draft to the instructor a week before the assignment is due so that she may assist you in revisions.
Plagiarism is a serious violation of ethics, and its consequences may include failing this class. Check with your instructor if you are unclear on how to quote or cite work that is not your own.
See the Catalog for details about additional issues of policy.
If you attend and participate in at least eight class chats, you will receive an 85 or above for participation. In order to receive a participation grade in the A range, students should participate in additional chats and engage in discussion in the forums. Participation grades will be assigned at the discretion of the instructor.
During each class chat, we will discuss the readings assigned during the previous week.
For Week 1, you will briefly define a list of key terms for the study of theologies of embodiment. One- or two-sentence answers are sufficient. Many of these terms can be found in your Week 1 readings. For additional information, Wikipedia is a sufficiently reliable resource for this assignment and (due to how frequently it is updated) may even be superior to standard encyclopedias and dictionaries. Please note, however, that Wikipedia is not an appropriate resource to cite for a research paper.
Other weekly homework assignments will include reflective responses, summaries, or summary/responses in a specific format (see below). Each week, you will be asked to post one of your written assignments to the Forum by Thursday for group discussion; the rest are due by the end of Sunday. Respond to at least one other student post before the next chat.
Students are encouraged to use the Forums for any additional questions, reflections, or reactions that come up in the course of the class.
Your weekly homework is due by the end of the day on Wednesday. Each reading summary should be around 200-250 words. You will not be penalized for additional length, but it will make the best use of your time and the instructor’s time if your writing is dense and to the point.
In addition to submitting your assignment through the assignment link, choose one reading summary to post in the Forum by the end of Thursday. Turn in the remainder of your homework by the end of Sunday. Respond to at least one other student Forum post before the following week’s chat.
In paragraphs or in outline form, summarize the reading and then respond to it both analytically and personally.
Below is an example of a student reading summary in this format, from a chapter of Jordan Paper’s The Deities Are Many.
Jordan Paper states:
- that when we depend on wild plants and animals, we see them as numinous/deities
- that when we domesticate the plants and animals on which we still depend, we see them as gifts of the numinous/deities rather than as the numinous/deities themselves
- that plant and animal deities have powers humans need in our lives
- that humans are weak in relation to wild animals
- that we know about deities because they communicate with us
- that my life is dependent on the deaths – the sacrifices – of plants and animals, as well as the gifts of plants and animals (mammals do not have to die to give milk, or fowl to give eggs, for example)
- my respect for and gratitude to the plants and animals whose deaths sustain my life
- that I recognize the plant and animal beings I encounter each day as Sacred, and strive to do so more consciously
- my bird feeding as a sacrifice of appreciation to some of the bird deities in my new location, as a freely-chosen religious/spiritual obligation during certain seasons
- that the conscious cultivation of relationship with plants and animals may restore a numinous quality that supermarket culture has removed
Assignments that receive a grade in the A range will:
- be specific
- go beyond mere description and begin to ask/answer “why?”, “how?”, and “so what?”
- pick up on nuances in the readings that require more than skimming to grasp
- present students’ most controversial, radical, or challenging personal theologies
- present statements from students’ experience that are likely to be unique
The instructor may choose a few particularly insightful or provocative excerpts from these assignments to share anonymously with the class as springboards for further discussion.
Book Review: This assignment gives you an opportunity to read an additional book related to theology and embodiment. Suggestions for acceptable books will be provided by the instructor; other choices must be approved. This assignment is due at the end of Week 5.
Your book review will contain the following elements:
- Summary of the book’s contents and main argument(s)
- Evaluation of the book’s effectiveness with its intended audience
- Reflective response on how this book might be useful in your ministry or personally
Assume that your reader is an educated fellow student who has not read the book. Your summary must give the reader enough information to understand your evaluation of it. Make sure your review is more than summary, however! Your job is to present an educated opinion about the book you read; summary is a tool in this process and is not a sufficient end product by itself. Your thoughts and reflections should make up at least half of the review.
Consider questions such as these as you take notes for your review.
- What is the topic?
- What are the author’s subjects?
- To whom is the author writing?
- What is the author’s opinion of her subject and what tone does she use?
- How does the author support her statements?
- Is the argument convincing? If not, why not?
- How am I reacting to the text?
- How does this text fit into what I already know about the subject?
- Who would benefit most from reading this text?
Your review should contain a minimum of 750 double-spaced words. Organization, grammar, clarity, and the use of proper citation format (MLA, Chicago, or another academic format) will be considered in the evaluation of your essay.
A sample book review: http://inhumandecency.org/christine/eisler.html
Autobiography: You will compose an approximately 1000-word personal reflection and account considering the role of the body in your religious and spiritual life. In order to focus your narrative, you may wish to choose a specific incident from your life and contextualize it using the theological ideas and issues that we will study in class. These narratives will be shared with the class in a non-judgmental environment, so students are encouraged to share as openly as they feel comfortable. Potential starting places for beginning such narratives include:
- experiences of the body’s limits, such as while running a marathon or dealing with a serious illness
- memories of the onset of puberty or menstruation
- reflections on one’s personal relationship to traditional gender roles, particularly during life transitions such as marriage or parenthood
- growing, preparing, and eating one’s own food
- coming out regarding sexual orientation or gender identity
- sacred experiences of touch (with human or other-than-human persons)
- experiences of the body while recovering from abuse
- experiences of the body in “natural” environments
Questions you may wish to address in order to link your personal experiences with class materials:
- How did I experience divinity (or the absence of divinity) in this incident or period of my life?
- How did my spiritual practice and beliefs at the time shape this experience?
- How has this experience shaped my spiritual practice and beliefs?
- What are the ethical issues that are relevant to my experience?
- How did I relate to my community and my loved ones with regard to this issue? How did they relate to me?
- What did my experiences teach me about the nature of the body?
Assignments will be graded for clarity, originality, and their success in framing a personal experience within a theological framework. Students may wish to consider carefully before writing about an issue that is emotionally volatile for them, as it may be difficult to submit such experiences to theological analysis. A successful autobiography assignment will balance emotional engagement with thoughtful, well-reasoned theological reflections.
This assignment is due at the end of Week 8, and the writing process should be considered part of the preparation for your Final Project Question, described below.
Final Project Question: By the end of Week 8, you will have developed a sense of what you are curious about and how that might become a project. Your project question may still be broad and open-ended, but it should also be provocative and express a real area of curiosity and concern for you.
Post your question to the Final Project Questions forum for instructor and student feedback. There, we will begin to narrow your field of inquiry so that it can be tackled in a final project.
Examples of viable project questions:
- What is the role of a religious community in supporting its members around coming-out issues?
- Why was ritual sex important in early twentieth-century occultism?
- How can Pagan beliefs about the body support food and water justice work?
- How can large Pagan groups balance disability accommodation with the desire to offer ritual in wild or out of the way natural settings?
- How can Pagans best represent the sexual and gender diversity of the Pagan community in an interfaith context?
- How do Pagan beliefs inform our ethics about reproductive rights?
- What do children need to know about their bodies in order to understand them as sacred?
- What education does my community need around racial justice, and how does its existing beliefs about the religious role of ancestry help or hinder that effort?
Final Project: You will design, implement as is appropriate, and present a project based on your personal learning goals, readings, autobiography, reading responses, and your final project question.
This project is not necessarily a research paper, although you may write a paper if research is the best format in which to address your question. You might choose to outline a workshop, create a game, design a ritual, prepare a speech, develop a meditation series, or any other creative and useful vehicle for your project. The project will be presented to the class during one of the two final chats.
Written materials should be 12-15 pages long. Other types of projects should involve about as much work as a 15-page paper and must include a verbal or written component that contextualizes the project for the class (or other intended audience). If you are choosing to work in an artistic medium, speak to the instructor about how substantial the written or verbal presentation should be.
Your project proposal of approximately 250 words is due by the end of Week 9 and must be approved by the instructor. It should include:
- A description of the project, including your (brief) anticipated answer to your Project Question (your “thesis sentence”)
- A rationale for the project – why this topic? Why this approach?
- Whom you intend the project to serve
- How you see this project as serving this population
- Logistical considerations, including how you will present the project for grading and to the class
- A list of the resources you will draw on to complete the project (books, websites, people, etc.)
You will present your project or excerpts from it to the class at the end of the semester. During Week 13, post an approximately 200-word summary of your project (an abstract such as you might provide for a conference presentation) to the Final Projects forum.
The written part of your project is due at the end of Week 13. Project materials may be posted to the Forum, or you may share a link to Dropbox or another service if they are very large.
Presentations may be made verbally via Skype, with Powerpoint, via recorded MP3, and/or by another instructor-approved method. Your presentation of the project to the class should be no more than 10 minutes long. Each student will take questions and comments after their presentation.
Note that you will certainly not be able to cover every aspect of your project in ten minutes, so come prepared to adequately summarize and point out the highlights of your paper or project for the class. The effectiveness with which you present the project will be considered in grading.
Grades will be given according to the rubric described in the Student Handbook. Please note that in a graduate-level class, a B is given for solid, above-average work. Grades in the A range require substantial analytical thinking and creativity. Contact the instructor if you need clarification on what “analysis” means in the study of theology.
Book Review 15%
Weekly Homework 15%
Project Question 5%
Final Project Proposal 5%
Final Project 20%
Final Project Presentation 5%
Summary of Assignments
Forum posts are due by Thursday of the week assigned. All other assignments should be submitted by the Sunday of the week they are due. Late assignments may receive a grade penalty, up to one letter grade per week, at the discretion of the instructor.
If you find you need an extension on an assignment, contact the instructor immediately.
Definitions, 200-word reflective responses, or summary/responses
Forum posts and replies
Title of book for review
Final Project Question
Final Project Proposal
Week 1: Defining Terms
- Kraemer, “Pagan Traditions: Sacralizing the Body” (2016)
- Kraemer, Eros and Touch (2013), Introduction and Conclusion
- Fuller, Spirituality in the Flesh (2008), Introduction and Conclusion
Week 2: Theologies of the Embodied Self/Soul(s)
- Kraemer, Seeking the Mystery (2012) Chp 4, 83-85; 91-94
- Weidenbaum, “You Have to Take It With You” (2008)
- Abram, “The Perceptual Implications of Gaia” (1990)
- Whiting, “On Being a Holy Mother” (2011)
Week 3: Pain, Illness, and Disability
- Fuller, Spirituality In the Flesh, Chp 6
- Matthews, “Rooted in This Body: Learning Pantheism from Chronic Illness” (2013)
- Pearson, “Disabled Rites?: Ritual and Disability in Wicca” (2011)
- Pearson, “Embracing the Lash: Pain and Ritual as Spiritual Tools” (2011)
- Aldag, “How to Include the Physically Challenged in Group Rituals”
Week 4: Pleasure, Healing, and Touch
- Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 1 & 4
- Kirner, “Healing Community” (2014)
- Brown, “Touch and American Religions” (2009)
Week 5: Food and Water Justice
- Harvey, Animism (2005) Chp 6
- Rifkin, “Pagan Kosher” series (2013) (http://witchesandpagans.com/tags/tag/pagan-kosher.html)
- Larson, “Holy Water and Human Rights” (2011)
- UUA, “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice”
- Clifton, “The Hunter’s Eucharist” (1993)
- Adams, Neither Man Nor Beast (1995) excerpts
Week 6: Sexual and Erotic Diversity
- Rubin, “Thinking Sex” (1984/1992)
- Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 3
Week 7: Erotic Justice
- Kraemer, Eros and Touch Chp 2
- Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 90-118, 142-146
- Kraemer and Aburrow, Pagan Consent Culture Introduction (2016)
- Betkowski, “Seeking a Morality of Difference” (2016)
Week 8: Race, Rac(ial)ism, and Ancestry
- Gallagher, “Weaving a Tangled Web? Pagan Ethics and Issues of History, ‘Race’ and Ethnicity in Pagan Identity” (2009)
- Bel, “Ancestors and Heritage in Paganism” (2016)
- Blanton, “Understanding the Definition of Racism” (2015)
- Skallagrimsson, “Racism in Asatru”
- Hale, “Marketing Rad Trad” (2015)
- Theurer, “Ancestor Work and Anti-Racism” (2015)
Week 9: Sexuality and Gender
- Kraemer, “Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Paganism” (2012)
- Urban, Magia Sexualis (2006) Chp 6
- Salomonsen, Enchanted Feminism (2002) Chp 7
- Blain and Wallis, “The Ergi Seidman” (2001)
Week 10: Queer and Transgender Issues
- Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 119-142
- Eller, Am I a Woman? (2003) Chp 1 & 2
- Kaldera, “The Third Voice” (2012)
- Stover, “When Pan Met Wendy: Gendered Membership Debates Among the Radical Faeries” (2008)
- Greene, “Transgender Inclusion Debates Reignite in Pagan Community” (2016)
Week 11: BDSM and Alternative Relationship Structures
- Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 64-89, 147-173
- Henkin, “Counseling Bisexuals on BDSM Lifestyle Issues” (2005)
- Kaldera, “Walking the Underworld Paths: BDSM, Power Exchange, and Consent in a Sacred Context” (2016)
- Hoff and Sprott, “Therapy Experiences of Clients with BDSM Sexualities” (2009)
- Zell, “A Bouquet of Lovers” (1990)
- Weitzman, “Counseling Bisexuals in Polyamorous Relationships” (2005)
- Hutchins, “Playing with Sacred Fire: Building Erotic Communities” (2005)
Week 12: The Myth of the Temple Prostitute and the Contemporary “Sacred Harlot”
- Hunter, Rites of Pleasure (2004) pp. 174-194
- Hutchins, “Bisexual Women as Emblematic Sexual Healers and the Problematics of the Embodied Sacred Whore” (2002)
- Budin, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution (2008) Introduction, Chp 11
- Urban, Magia Sexualis (2006), Conclusion
Week 13: Final Projects
Week 14: Final Projects
I am a lucky woman, and much gifted. Four gifts in particular I received this year:
a perfect July peach
a knife that fits my hand
a heartmeant compliment from a teenage son
and an argument for which I did not apologize
These things exist in our world, but they are exceeding rare. I know their value and will wear them forged and braided as adornment and strength. I am a lucky woman.
A woman grown so quiet here, in this space where just a year or two ago I was all enthusiasm. For a while my silence worried me. A theologian, I’ve had to learn trust over the months as my thought moves down, into the body. Into my body. A poet, I’ve had to face the fact that language flattens and distorts when tossed about too quickly. A woman, I’ve had to find a way to understand my silences as active and alive, rather than passive and inert.
All the myths and stories tell us the gift exists to be transformed and passed on, or it loses its power.
A Poem for Women with Birthdays
It has taken me decades to learn to love
the way I pour each night into bed like a Midwestern river,
soft and insistent and ripe, effulgent with summer rain,
here and there paused and pooled
with minnows, with trout. Then too I am the voracious,
toothy carp jumping into the next boat that passes.
I was taught to play my breath out with care,
To run it over and through the knotted cords of my throat
like wind through a young grove of aspen,
to sing and laugh like the spring breeze that flirts
and lifts the hair playfully on a hopeful morning.
It’s a gift, that grace, but there are other gifts too.
By now I know we are equal parts joke and broken,
luscious bluster and blister, so very unspoken,
so very real. Silver and gilt. Sisters, tell me
how will you exult
in your gristle, the meat and fat of your flesh,
how will you rest in the mud of your marrow,
where important and ephemeral things go to be born?
Nameless and slippery, crunched and wiggling,
dark in the sockets of bone,
against all odds and cultural narratives,
we have time yet to locate each element and ore, here,
and here, and here again. Come closer.
Gods and Politics, Warp and Weft
The question of which comes first, gods or politics, is for me rather like the question of the chicken and the egg. The one exists in the context of the other, and they are inextricable. The deities we choose to worship (and even the deities who choose us to work with them) are influenced by our politics, because why would they choose to have a relationship with a human whose values and goals differed from theirs, and why would we choose to have a relationship with a deity whose values and goals differ from ours?
Let’s take a step back and talk about definitions.
What is a deity? A deity is a powerful entity or identity who has emerged from the complexity of the universe, and is shaped by social interactions (with humans, animals, their environment, other deities, and other spirit entities) just as humans are. Deities have agency, or at least they seem to. Often that agency involves influencing people to do their work for them. That’s what I believe anyway; you may have a different idea. It’s worth thinking, too, about what kind of person a deity might be. If they are advanced beings of great virtue, then one would expect that they have ethical values that are similar to the highest values we can imagine (unless they possess information about how the universe works that is simply unavailable to our finite perceptions, in which case they might have a different concept of what is ethical). But nevertheless any ideas they come up with have to work on the physical plane and be comprehensible to our finite perspective.
What is politics? Politics is any situation where a conflict of interest or a difference of power is resolved by negotiation (which could be a large-scale vote or a small-scale consensus process) instead of war. It has even been said that war is a continuation of politics by other means (which is true, as when negotiation breaks down, either the status quo or an outbreak of physical violence will follow).
Conflicts of values
If you believe that the gods come before politics (by which I mean the way humans negotiate living in community), what would you do if a deity commanded you to do something that was against your ethics? I imagine that, at the very least, you would do some practice of discernment (such as divination) to check that you had heard their message correctly and were not just deluding yourself. You might even refuse outright to do the task they have requested. In that case, you have (rightly in my view) put politics before gods.
If you are a person with a marginalised identity who wants to honour Pagan deities in community with others, and something about the way Pagan rituals are constructed excludes you from those rituals, then there is a conflict of interest (the existing members want to keep doing their rituals a certain way, but you want to join the group, which requires change). There is also a power differential, in that the existing members of the group hold the power to change their rituals or practices to be more inclusive (or not). So that’s politics, right there, as Ginger Drekisdottir pointed out.
So, if a disabled person, person of colour, or LGBT person is structurally excluded from your rituals but they were chosen by a deity you honour – your political decision to exclude them dishonours that deity – and you have (wrongly in my view) put politics before gods. Especially if your rituals are the only ones in town.
If your chosen deities command hospitality towards the stranger, but your politics and values demand that you turn refugees and migrants and the disabled and LGBT and PoC away… then you have (wrongly in my view) put politics before gods.
Many Pagan deities command hospitality, honour, and the exchange of gifts (reciprocity).
The politics of the gods
I think the deities are part of Pagan society, not separate from it, and therefore even the way we negotiate our relationships with deities is political. They may want one thing, we may want something else (a conflict of interest). They may have a different perspective; they also have greater – possibly infinite – power in a particular sphere of influence. They are part of a complex web of relationships which involves differences of power, conflicts of interest, and negotiations about how to resolve those conflicts. So your relationship with a deity is political, just as the personal and the interpersonal are political.
And rather than politics being a sphere that is separate from deities, it is the complex web of relationships between human and human, human and other-than-human, humans and deities, spirits and deities, spirits and spirits, deities and deities. So you can’t put one before the other – politics is the very stuff of our relationships with gods, the context in which those relationships happen.
I became a Pagan and a polytheist because I believe that all life is interconnected, interwoven, interpermeable. My values informed my choice of religion and theology, and my values are political because they are about how I relate to other beings. It is impossible to consider the gods (or any other entities) outside of that context of interrelationship – and therefore, politics.
There are many different metaphors floating about for religions, and each one illuminates something different about the nature of religion – that’s why I collect them.
Religions as explanatory tools for various situations – like why shit happens (surprisingly accurate); why your web page cannot be found; and of course, how many adherents it takes to change a lightbulb (there are Christian lightbulb jokes, Pagan lightbulb jokes, Jewish lightbulb jokes, Buddhist lightbulb jokes, and there may be many others that haven’t been discovered).
Religions as languages
Viewing religions as languages helps us to see them as a group of distinct forms which may be related but may also be mutually incomprehensible. They also have dialects, just as religions have many variations which are still recognisable as part of that religion.
Religions as languages – the idea that religions are languages, each with their own dialects, discourses, and ability to spread through trade and conquest. This metaphor is a very helpful way to understand religions, though it’s not the whole picture. Wittgenstein’s concept of language games could also be useful here. Jeff Lilly explores this metaphor in two excellent articles, The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part I: Prestige and Stigma and The Future of Neopaganism in the West, Part II: Going Organic. Similarly, Andrew J Brown likens religions to irregular verbs:
Christianity is an irregular verb par excellence (as too, of course, are all the other world religions). To speak it and understand its hopeful message you simply have to learn them, live them, always use them in the context of the world in which you find yourself. They are never reducible to a set of simple unifying, rational rules.
Religions as software – if your brain is the hardware and your mind is the operating system, religions are the software installed on it (and sometimes it’s really difficult to uninstall them). My article, Religions as software, explores this idea.
Religions as people
Different people respond to the world differently depending on their personal history, the culture in which they were born, and the historical circumstances of their era. The same is true of religions.
Religions as vinegar tasters – there’s a Taoist painting of Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu tasting vinegar; only Lao Tsu is smiling and enjoying the vinegar for what it is. The vinegar represents life, the world as it is. Another article by Jeff Lilly explores the idea of the vinegar tasters.
Religions as ex-girlfriends – a hilarious article by Al Billings (sadly no longer available) explores the idea of religions as ex-girlfriends, which means they naturally have opinions of each other:
[Wicca] complains about your “kablahblah” and rolls her eyes while mumbling about patriarchal power schemes. She can’t stop talking about Roman Catholicism and how wrong she was for you… in fact, she seems pretty obsessed with her sometimes.
Religions as landscapes
This group of metaphors is particularly useful for illuminating the widely varying practices, traditions, and values within different religions.
Religions as cities – this one’s been popular ever since someone dreamed up the heavenly Jerusalem, and Augustine burbled on about the City of God. Nevertheless, not a bad metaphor; different denominations can be different suburbs. As Evelyn Underhill famously said, ‘the Anglican Church may not be the city of God but she is certainly a respectable suburb thereof’. Andrew Brown has a lovely article on religions as cities. If Christianity is a city, is Paganism another city (possibly with more trees), or is it the surrounding countryside?
Religion as landscapes – In my post “Your mountain is not my mountain and that’s just fine“, I suggested that the Pagan revival (and other religions) is like a vast landscape with mountains, rivers, camping grounds, cities, and forests – and each of these fulfils the needs of different groups of people.
Religions as rhizomes or river systems – Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the spread of ideas as being like the growth of rhizomes could also be useful here. Similarly, religions are discourses, so the idea of discourses as rivers could also be useful. R Diaz-Bone (2006) describes discourses as an ‘expression, indeed part of a certain social praxis, that already defines a certain group of possible texts, that express that same praxis, indeed can be accepted as representatives of that same praxis.’
Religions as trees – Tolkien described the Catholic Church as a big tree growing into time with its roots in eternity; and regarded the Protestant Reformation as an attempt to chop down that tree, with all its interesting gnarly bits, and start again with a new sapling. Regardless of what you think of his particular religious politics, it’s a great metaphor. Trees grow in a particular place and are nourished by the soil and shaped by the winds that blow, so each religion is shaped by its environment; but all trees are recognisable as trees and have some features in common, by which we can compare them, so this metaphor gives you essence (the quality of treeness) and particularity (type of tree, environmental conditions).
Religion as a wagon train moving towards undiscovered regions. The different religions form different wagon trains, and some are searching for gold, others for lush farmland, others for good fishing. Not only that, we don’t necessarily know where our wagon-train is headed – it’s all about the journey.
Religions as light, colour, energy
I particularly like this group of metaphors for illuminating the idea that religions are different perspectives on life, which generally promotes mutual tolerance.
Religions as receivers of frequencies – it occurred to me that each religion has its own frequency for tuning in to the numinous, and that in between the frequencies, there is static (but perhaps one day a new radio station will appear there). Or perhaps one religion is tuned to light, another is sound, and another is radio waves, and so on — so each religion is a different type of receiver for detecting the emissions from the numinous.
Religions as prisms refracting the light of the divine:
Imagine for a moment that the divine Ultimate Reality (what some might called YHWH, God, Allah, Nirvana, Brahman) is like the electromagnetic spectrum of light — infinitely continuous, a tiny bandwidth visible, most unseen by the human eye. In each of the great faiths of the world, the metaphor of light is used for the divine. Now think back to a science class in which you learned about prisms. A prism breaks down pure “white” light into a color spectrum. Each of us views Ultimate Reality through a prism. We see our universe and our lives through a lens that has been shaped by our cultures, languages, histories, upbringings and genetic dispositions. When I look through my prism at the light, I might see blue; someone else will see red, and another green. Blue, red and green are not the same, but each is part of the spectrum that is light. Each is unique, but true — yet incomplete. Infinity encompasses contradictions.
Religions as colours – each religion has a different set of colours representing the philosophical and cultural ideas within it. Colors of Paganism, Colors of Judaism, Colors of Islam, Colors of Hinduism, Colors of Christianity, Colors of Buddhism.
Religions as art-forms
I like this group of metaphors because it suggests that there is an aesthetic to religion and ritual, and that it can be great art and drama, or it can be mush.
Religions as dance (suggested by Yvonne Rathbone):
Religion as Dance. Contemporary, Jazz, Ballroom, Hawaiian, Crump, Latin, Hip-hop. To get really good at one, you have to focus on it and do it a lot. You can admire someone who is really good at another type of dance without feeling it takes away from your own dancing. And you are, of course, completely welcome to learn as many dances as you like, doing one or another depending on your mood. Except that, in a way, religion as dance isn’t a metaphor but a tautology.
Religions as movies (suggested by KNicoll): reconstructionist religions are like films “based on a true story”. I suggested that Wicca is a movie based on a romanticisation of a folkloric trope – but it is still satisfying and effective.
Religion as cuisine – Some cuisines blend well together; others do not. The taste of Mexican cuisine is not reducible to the taste of Indian cuisine, even though they use some of the same spices. On a related note, religion as ice-cream, and mixing religions as a spiritual buffet. Then there’s the idea of religions as different desserts (apple pie is not the only dessert), and religions as different types of alcoholic beverage.
Religion as music: Music can transport us to other realms of imagination; it can be uplifting, stirring, boring, disturbing, discordant. There are various genres of music – some people like thrash metal, others prefer classical. Different types of religion can also have wildly varying effects on people – some people prefer charismatic religion, others prefer the formal and liturgical.
The way things have been going lately, anyone would think that Eris had lobbed an apple pie into the middle of the Patheos Pagan channel. There are so many apple and apple pie related posts, it’s hard to keep track of them all. But let’s keep the discussion civil.
What Eris teaches us is that sometimes throwing all the pieces up in the air to see where they land is a good thing. It’s very uncomfortable while it’s happening, but it is necessary. At the moment, polytheists are going through a phase of throwing everything up in the air to see where it lands (or perhaps it’s an awkward adolescence). Let’s just take care that it doesn’t land on someone and squash them when the dust settles.
Metaphor and Analogy
Metaphors are sometimes useful. But there’s a difference between a metaphor and an analogy.
- A metaphor is applicable to a situation but can be interpreted in a number of different ways. A classic metaphor is “My love is like a red red rose” (Robert Burns). If you try to turn this into an analogy, it doesn’t work. Robert Burns is not saying that his love has thorns and a stem and the petals fall off. He is saying that his love evokes the same feelings as a red rose (beautiful, sensuous, smells nice). So those qualities of the rose are transferable to the experience of his love; the rest of the rose’s attributes are ignored.
- An analogy is an exact mapping of one thing to another thing. For example, the solar system is often used as an analogy for atoms (it’s not exactly how atoms work, but it’s a good way to teach kids about atoms). The electrons orbit around the nucleus. The planets orbit around the sun. There’s a direct mapping of all the features of the two systems being compared.
What’s wrong with chocolate cake?
I am assuming that in John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods metaphor, the people selling chocolate cake were Wiccans and Wiccanish Pagans. I like chocolate cake and Wicca. I am not so keen on chocolate cake with not enough chocolate in it, but each to their own. This metaphor, however, implies that you can’t mix Wicca and polytheism (or maybe I am reading too much into it). That’s the problem with vague metaphors, they can mean all sorts of things that may not have been intended. I wouldn’t mix chocolate cake with apples – but you most definitely can mix polytheism and Wicca.
Many flavours are available
If my view of polytheism is different from yours, that’s a good thing – it means that more flavours of polytheism are available; and that’s helpful. Some people like apple pie with cinnamon; others like it with shortcrust pastry, or puff pastry, or less sugary; others still don’t even like apple pie; some people maintain that desserts are bad for you. There are many desserts available, and many flavours of polytheism (none of which are the One True Flavour).
None of us know objectively what the nature of the gods is; we only perceive them with our limited, local, and finite perspective. It is interesting to discuss their nature and how we interact with them, so that we can learn from each other’s perspectives. But we can’t be certain what the nature of the gods is.
We don’t all like the same flavours
The only way to discover whether one perspective is better than another is by observing its results in the world. If your perspective makes you feel closer to the gods, happy, fulfilled, and able to function effectively as a human being without harming others, then it is probably worth sharing. If your perspective makes you angry, bitter, jealous, and vengeful, then it probably isn’t doing you or anyone else any good.
And, here’s the rub: apple pie with cinnamon makes me say “Yuk!” but for someone else, it may be the only way to make apple pie. That’s just fine, as long as I don’t make them eat my recipe, and they don’t make me eat their recipe.
Apples and Apple Pie – the story so far
- John Beckett – The gods are like apples.
There are many different varieties of apple (Granny Smith, Bramley, Russet, etc) but they are all apples. They are also distinguishable from oranges.
- John Halstead – How do you like them apples? On gods and metaphors
However, deciding where the tree ends and the apple begins – or whether it’s still an apple when you’ve eaten it – is difficult.
- Tom Swiss – The gods are like golden apples
Eris’s golden apple was inscribed “To the fairest” – and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, everyone’s experience of the gods is unique.
- Pat Mosley – Up in the mountains, there’s a tree that bears many apples
Everyone has a different experience of trees and apples, but what matters is that there are many stories and many perspectives.
- John Beckett – The Bakery of the Gods
If a person who has eaten vanilla pudding all their life comes looking for apple pie, but is confronted with people selling chocolate cake, changing all the labels in the bakery, and claiming that all desserts are the same, they might get confused about what’s apple pie and what isn’t
- Yvonne Aburrow – Polytheism and Apple Pie
But then there are people claiming that they have the One True Recipe for apple pie, and everyone else is Doing It Wrong
- John Halstead – The gods are “like warm apple pie”: The hidden meanings behind our metaphors
Careful with that metaphor, it’s not neutral
Various commenters have also pointed out that they are allergic to apple pie, or prefer rhubarb pie, or pear pie, or apple crumble.
Did I omit your apple / apple-pie post? Let me know in the comments.
John Beckett has a witty and amusing post up about apple pie, vanilla pudding, and other kinds of dessert. He’s got practically the entire readership of Patheos Pagan going “I want apple pie”.
But he missed out all the people who are saying that only their apple pie is the real apple pie. (John himself acknowledges that there are many kinds of apple pie.)
Your apple pie is not my apple pie
I am horrified that John puts cinnamon in his apple pie, and nothing would persuade me to eat it. That’s just wrong. Also, I am willing to bet there is too much sugar in his apple pie (I like mine really tart). And I bet he doesn’t put cheese with it either, because he’s not from Yorkshire.
And if you are a British reader, you will not be tasting the same apple pie on your mind’s tongue as an American reader. The poor benighted Americans don’t even have Bramley apples, apparently. This recipe article outlines the difference between a British apple pie and an American apple pie.
But it’s still apple pie
However, I would have to grudgingly acknowledge that his apple pie is a kind of apple pie (despite the presence of cinnamon and too much sugar) because his pie has apples and pastry in it, and therefore it meets the minimum criteria for being described as apple pie. I hope he would acknowledge that my apple pie is also apple pie, even if he doesn’t like it.
And my Bramley apple pie is definitely better than apple pie made with the wrong kind of apples and with cinnamon and extra sugar…. for me.
The same applies to polytheism. You might not like relational polytheism, or mystical polytheism, or devotional polytheism, or polytheistic monism, or anything else that can be described as polytheism because it involves many gods… but it’s still polytheism.
This is an invitation. This is an opening in the day.
Pause. Deepen, listening into to your senses. Ground to the earth under the sidewalks, under the foundations of houses and workplaces. Breathe slowly and fully.
Here is a lived truth I invite you to share: when we are birthing, it helps to breathe through the pain.
Breathe and Ground.
Ground and Breathe.
Seven Reasons I Am Silent
- I do not think I am a blogger.
- I have been thinking about this for a long time.
- A blog is a form. A relatively new one. It is a form that requires
- Information easily broken down into bullet points and top ten lists
- Visual content
- An easy and accessible voice
- You don’t have to hit every one of those, but most of the time I hit one at the most. Sometimes zee-ro.
- And I’m okay with that. My work is elsewhere.
- The blog form also asks that the writer…know. Have answers. A blog is a container for answers.
- I don’t have answers. I have mostly questions.
I Am Too Slow a Writer to Blog Well
Breathe and Ground.
Ground and Breathe.
Choose your adventure, choose your battle. Because I am a slow writer, because I take a lot of time to process, I was writing three blogs posts at once last week. Social media moves faster than I do, even on my good days. Then I realized all my essays said the same thing: it is not a question of two sides. This (whichever this you are looking at currently) is not a binary dilemma.
This Is the Only Offering I Have
Breathe and Ground.
Ground and Breathe.
I do not have answers. All I can do is hold space, here.
Those who shout loudest feel most threatened.
Those who speak the most hate feel the most fear.
What do we fear?
Who do we fear?
What scars do we bear?
What wounds never healed?
Everyone is hurting. Breathe.
That person you have named your enemy is hurting. Breathe.
That person you fear is hurting. Breathe.
That person you do not know is hurting. Breathe.
That person who hurt you is hurting. Breathe.
That person who thinks she has the answer but is afraid to share it is hurting. Breathe.
That person who tells you he has the answer is hurting. Breathe.
It is not us and them. It is not me and you. It is we. Breathe.
It is never the end of the world. Breathe.
Peace, peace, peace, to all of us. Breathe.
When we are birthing, it helps to breathe through the pain.