A Skeptic’s Guide to Gods and Spirits

June 1, 2015 by via A Skeptic’s Guide to Gods and Spirits.

We discovered some interesting things in the CUUPS Revisioning process. Most folks who are affiliated with CUUPS (the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans) have a strong connection to Nature. This isn’t surprising – Unitarians and Universalists have long had a reverence for Nature, perhaps best expressed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s quote “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”

What I did not expect to find was an interest in Gods and spirits. Even more surprising was that 60% of respondents believe Gods and spirits are real beings who exist independently of humans (the other 40% see them as metaphors for forces of Nature). When I read the free-form comments (which I cannot post – we promised to keep them confidential) I understood a little better. Many people shared stories of experiences that could be described as mystical, magical, otherworldly, or simply religious.

This being a group of UUs, you might expect a wide diversity of interpretations of these experiences. Instead, the surveys showed that most UU Pagans are very uncertain what to make of their experiences. This leads to a reluctance to discuss them, which only adds to the tentativeness with which they’re examined.

It’s not hard to see why. We live in a thoroughly materialist culture – only literal, tangible interpretations are considered possible. Anything that even hints at the supernatural (one of my least favorite words) is dismissed as delusion or fantasy. This is especially true for UUs, many of whom are refugees from religions where we were told we had to believe things our good sense tells us aren’t true.

Skepticism comes easily. Many of us are reluctant to discuss our spiritual experiences for fear of being dismissed, ridiculed, or even shunned, sometimes to the point we question if our experiences ever happened.

But they did happen. They are real, they are powerful, and they are waiting for us to figure out what they mean. What can skeptics do when they counter Gods and spirits?

Cherish your experiences. Whatever they may be, experiences of Gods and spirits don’t happen all the time. Part of their value comes from their rarity, and from the fact that while we can do things to encourage and facilitate them, we cannot command or control them. Gods and spirits show up on their own timetables and for their own reasons.

These experiences are a glimpse into a greater reality, even if that reality is only internal (though as a devotional polytheist, I think that reality is external). Cherish and appreciate them for the special occasions they are.

Understand that people have had these experiences for at least as long as we’ve been human. And they continue today. Read the stories of our ancestors. Read the work of anthropologists, historians, and religious scholars. Talk to people in a wide variety of religions. Your specific experiences are unique to you, but this general class of experiences is common.

It’s just that our society dismisses anything that sounds the least bit supernatural. We’re intelligent, well-educated, sophisticated Westerners – we have a reputation to maintain. So we ignore things that don’t fit neatly into the mainstream view of the world.

One of the reasons I keep this blog is so others can see that yes, intelligent, well-educated people really do have these experiences, and we don’t all don’t dismiss them out of hand.

Ignore unhelpful opinions. The atheist who insists all religion is made-up garbage? Smile and ignore him. The fundamentalist who says you’re dealing with demons? Thank her for her concern and go back to what you were doing.

You don’t have to unfriend these people – not on social media and certainly not in real life. It’s good to have friends from a variety of religious backgrounds, and hey, if my Christian friends can deal with my polytheism, you can put up with your friends’ religions. But you have to make your own decisions just as they did.

Look for ordinary explanations. Sometimes a bird flying over you is simply trying to get from one place to another. Sometimes that strange feeling means you need to eat something. Dismissing ordinary explanations because they’re mundane and boring is just as much of a mistake as dismissing extraordinary explanations because the mainstream culture insists they’re impossible.

photo by Cyn Qoaad

Consider the possible interpretations. Perhaps your experience of a God is your higher self calling you to live in alignment with your values. Perhaps it’s an aspect of the Divine offering reunion with ultimate reality. Perhaps it’s one of the many Gods speaking to you for Their own reasons.

Not all possibilities are equally probable. There is strong evidence to believe fundamentalist Christian interpretations are wrong. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a parody. Hollywood magic only exists on-screen. Those who insist that if you don’t agree with them you have to believe anything are oversimplifying a complicated universe, but don’t waste your time on interpretations that are almost certainly false.

What speaks to your soul? What resonates with the core of your being? What whispers that it must be true, not because it’s easy or convenient or because it’s what you want to hear, but because it challenges you to live more fully? What tells you that reality is greater than yourself? What calls you into relationship with other beings, other people, other creatures? What do you really think is true?

What would you do if it was true? Imagine, for a moment, that there really are many Gods of immense but still limited power and scope. Assume, for now, that your ancestors are alive and concerned with the well-being of their physical and spiritual descendants. Imagine that the spirits of the land, sky, and sea are real, sentient beings with their own interests and agency.

If all that was true, what would you do? Celebrate? Pray? Meditate? Study? Make offerings? Sit in contemplation and communion? Would you consider Their wants and needs in your plans? Would you try to live by Their values and embody Their virtues? What would you do?

Now go do it.

It doesn’t matter if you aren’t certain it’s all true. In the end, there is no certainty with religious matters. But that’s OK – Paganism isn’t about what you believe, it’s about what you do.

Examine the results. Are you happier for your practicing? Less fearful? More connected and less alone? Do you sense a purpose where before there was none? Are you contributing to building a better world here and now, and a better future for our descendants?

Good religion will not make your life easier. If you take it seriously, it may very well make your life harder. Walking through life half asleep is a lot easier than living wide awake, aware of the world’s problems and committed to doing something to make them better.

Good religion won’t make your life easier, but it will make your life more meaningful.

Hold on loosely. The ultimate nature of Gods and spirits remains a mystery. Like all mysteries we may know them experientially and intuitively, but we can never know them intellectually. As we have more experiences, as we compare and contrast them with others who have had similar experiences, and as we carefully contemplate them, our interpretations will change. Practice deeply but hold loosely.

I can tell you how I’ve interpreted my experiences, but I can’t tell you how to interpret yours. All any of us can do is point you toward a process by which you can examine your experiences and come to a conclusion that is meaningful and helpful for you.

The survey says many of us have experiences of Gods and spirits. What are you going to do with yours?

Lake Tahoe 2015

 

 

Jefferson key in separating church, state

The druid community may wonder why I publish an old article about Jefferson here on the blog.

It is the founding fathers, and most notably, Jefferson that saw the wisdom in ensuring that our country not be bound by religious tyranny and therefore confirming America was never meant to be a ‘Christian State’.

From this legacy, we have the freedom to choose our own spirituality, whether that be druidry, wicca, other paganism or nothing at all.

I had this clipping from the News and Observer in 1995 that was a re-publish of Atlantic Monthly article by Merrill D. Peterson, a highly noteworthy professor and scholar on Jefferson. After doing a quick search to see where this may still be located on the web, I found it absolutely not to be found. Perhaps others will rummage through Google and find it, but I certainly believe it should not be that hard to find, or it has been expunged by editors perhaps.

I’m reprinting it as a reminder to the values of Jefferson and many other followers of the ‘enlightenment’ that architected our wonderful country.

______________________________

January 15, 1995

The News & Observer

Jefferson key in separating church, state

By MERRILL D. PETERSON; THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY

Page: A17

Thomas Jefferson was a methodical man all his life, and when he came to the end of that life, so crowded with accomplishments, it was perfectly in character for him to compose his own epitaph. He wished most to be remembered, he wrote, for three “testimonials” of his life: author of the Declaration of American Independence, author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.

The inclusion of the statute in such a noble trinity has sometimes perplexed Jefferson’s admirers. Of course he would wish to be remembered for the Declaration of Independence, which not only gave birth to the new American nation but provided it with a democratic creed and the world with a philosophy of human rights. And of course he would wish to be remembered for the University of Virginia: It was an enduring monument to his genius, not only in the physical architecture of the grounds and buildings but also in its educational spirit — so much so that it bore witness to the truth of Emerson’s aphorism “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”

But why should Jefferson include a mere statute, one of the laws of a single state, among the testimonials of his life? This essay is an answer to that question. And it maintains not only that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom belongs in Jefferson’s incisive epitaph but that it is, in fact, one of the main pillars of American democracy and a beacon of liberty to the world.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is the supreme expression of the 18th-century Enlightenment in Jefferson’s life and work. He was a bookish man. In youth “a hard student,” as he described himself, he was no less so in old age. He compiled three libraries in his lifetime. His great library of about 6,000 volumes became the foundation of the Library of Congress in 1815. And no sooner had he disposed of it than he commenced another, saying, “I cannot live without books.”

Growing up on the outskirts of civilization, the young Jefferson learned from books — how to design a house, measure an eclipse, form a government. He extended his experience beyond the narrow range of Colonial life by means of the new learning of the age and gained a vantage point from which to perceive, through the eye of reason, things as they ought to be. His heroes were neither statesmen nor warriors but philosophers — in particular Bacon, Newton and Locke, upon whom the edifice of the Enlightenment was raised.

The dominant spirit of the Enlightenment was one of skepticism toward all received truths and of untrammeled free inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge. “Everything,” Diderot enjoined in the great Encyclopedie, “must be examined, everything must be shaken up, without exception and without circumspection.”

Man had been too long alienated from nature. For centuries he had been dominated by dogmatic authority and superstition, which was embodied, above all, in the alliance of kings and priests, Church and State. Now those false idols were crumbling, and man might take control of his destiny by discovering the laws of nature and using them in the service of the species.

The optimistic faith of the Enlightenment informed all of Jefferson’s work and public policies: thus the decimal system of coinage with the dollar unit; thus the rectilinear land-survey system for the Transappalachian West, the effects of which are still visible to anyone who flies over the prairies and plains today and views the linear patchwork of the fields below; thus, too, though it was not adopted, Jefferson’s methodically developed plan for a uniform system of weights and measures based on a natural and universal standard. ###A successful suggestion:

But it is “Notes on the State of Virginia,” the only book he managed to write in a crowded lifetime, that offers the best avenue into the enlightened mind of Thomas Jefferson. The book is by itself worthy of an essay. Meant as a contribution to the European Enlightenment, it was also a foreward to the American Enlightenment, for here we find Jefferson, in the midst of the Revolutionary War, embarked upon the intellectual discovery of his native land, the greater Virginia of that day, which extended from Kentucky to the Great Lakes and westward to the Mississippi River. A work inspired by the spirit of the Enlightenment became a vehicle of American nationalism — of American self-definition.

First published in Paris in 1785, “Notes on Virginia” appeared in an improved English edition in 1787; many American editions followed. Chapter 17, on religion, is especially interesting in relation to our subject. In it Jefferson gave his own philosophical account of the struggle for religious freedom in Virginia, a struggle he later recalled as “the severest” in which he had ever engaged.

Jefferson’s leadership in that struggle commenced in the fall of 1776, when he returned from Congress, in Philadelphia, and took his seat as the Albemarle County representative in the General Assembly of the newly established Commonwealth of Virginia. Having set forth the fundamental principles of the new nation in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was eager to embody those principles in the laws of Virginia.

He advocated a host of reforms of the old order: a more democratic suffrage and equal representation, an open and individualistic system of landholding shorn of feudal survivals, a more rational and humanitarian code of criminal justice, gradual emancipation of the slaves, a comprehensive system of public education, and, of course, disestablishment of the Anglican Church and the institution of a new order of religious life founded on the twin principles of absolute religious freedom and separation of church and state.

Several of the reforms were never enacted. Old Virginia rejected Jefferson’s liberal vision of a new Virginia. After a decade-long campaign, however, his effort in behalf of religious freedom was crowned with success.

Limits of toleration:

The Church of England had been established in the infancy of the colony. There was nothing unusual about this. Everywhere in the world church and state were united, and dissenters from the established religion, although they might be tolerated, suffered numerous pains and penalties.

Virginia had been one of six American colonies with an Anglican establishment. That establishment had never been strong, however, and as the number of dissenters increased during the 18th century, the Church steadily lost vigor, influence and followers. In Virginia, as Jefferson remarked, perhaps as many as two-thirds of the citizens were dissenters from the established church. The Revolution rendered this conflict intolerable.

Jefferson had been disappointed that the Virginia constitution of 1776 left the establishment in place. Fortunately, the celebrated Declaration of Rights, adjoined to that constitution, asserted the true principle: “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

As originally drafted by George Mason, the article guaranteed only “the fullest Toleration in the exercise of religion.” But at the behest of James Madison, the young delegate from Orange County, the language of toleration was dropped in favor of the language of natural right: “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion.” The change amounted to only a few words, yet it was momentous.

The English Act of Toleration, it was commonly thought, had extended to Virginia. Under it, dissenting Protestants — not Roman Catholics or Jews — were allowed to hold religious services, provided that their ministers and places of worship were registered with the government. The idea of toleration assumed an official religion along with the right of the state to grant favor to dissenters or withhold it. Toleration, therefore, fell well short of equality.

On the principle of toleration, nothing needed to be changed in Virginia law and practice in 1776. Toleration was the status quo. But if the principle of individual freedom and right became the basis of legislation, there must be a sweeping change in the civil and religious life of the commonwealth.

And so it happened. When the first General Assembly met, in October of 1776, it was flooded with petitions for the

disestablishment of the church and the removal of disabilities from dissenters.

In this campaign, the battalions were provided by the dissenting sects: Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists. Their motives were clearly religious; they sought, as had Roger Williams and William Penn before them, the liberty of their own faith. But they were marshaled and led by liberals and rationalists like Jefferson and Madison, who, while friendly to religion, were not sectarians, and aimed to secure the republic and its citizens from the “spiritual tyranny” of any and every religion . the seekers of salvation and the seekers of freedom and enlightenment were allies in the Virginia struggle.

Taking the next step:

Jefferson outlined his whole philosophy of the subject in a speech delivered to the House of Delegates in November. (There is no record of the speech; what follows is based on Jefferson’s notes.) He began with a history lesson on the evils of religious establishments. Much of this concerned the Old World. But even in Virginia, he noted, the laws punished heresy by death, and denial of the Trinity by three years’ imprisonment; the law of blasphemy punished religious belief as well as speech; freethinkers might have their children taken from them under Virginia law; church attendance was compulsory; and so on.

To be sure, the laws were for the most part dead letters. But that did not remove the stigma of the laws, and it offered no security against returning oppression and injustice. The continuing persecution of Baptist ministers, in particular, was notorious. These “disturbers of the peace” had been hounded, silenced and imprisoned. All dissenters were taxed to support the Anglican Church. This, too, was persecution. What kind of attachment might these people feel toward a government that discriminated against them on behalf of a church and a clergy associated with the British enemy? Political realism as well as human right demanded disestablishment.

Jefferson then posed the fundamental question: “Has the state a right to adopt an opinion in matters of religion?” Answering with a resounding negative, he pursued the argument well beyond the original question of a single state church. According to the Lockean, or contractual, theory of civil government, men enter into government to secure those rights they cannot secure themselves. But religious conscience, being wholly inward and private, is not one of these. It does not depend upon civil authority. Men and women are answerable for their beliefs solely to God.

The state’s intervention in religious matters, Jefferson went on, was harmful to religion itself. Assailing the folly of

state-supported and -mandated religions, Jefferson sounded like a Virginia Voltaire: “Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.”

The progress of truth in religion, as in science, depended upon the progress of free inquiry and private judgment over the coercion and error of authority, both civil and ecclesiastical. “It is error alone which needs the support of government,” Jefferson declared. “Truth can stand by itself.” Religious differences — the multiplicity of sects and creeds in America — are beneficial to society. “The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other.” Religious differences are equally beneficial to religion, for they set up a virtuous competition among the sects and require them to stand on their own mettle rather than depending on external support.

Key votes in Virginia:

In the years to come, Jefferson often reaffirmed his belief in the salubrity of America’s religious pluralism. Writing to a rabbi who had sent him a discourse on the consecration of the synagogue in Savannah in 1821, he spoke of the two great principles proved by the American experience. First, he said, man can be trusted with the government of himself; and second, freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension and conflict, “the maxim of civil government being reversed in that of religion, where its true form is ‘divided we stand, united we fall.'”

The first contest, in 1776, ended in several small victories. The General Assembly repealed some of the most oppressive English statutes and exempted dissenters from taxes to support the Anglican Church. But the church was not disestablished, and parish levies on its members to support it were not abolished, only suspended.

At the same time, the assembly reserved decision on a new issue, a new proposal, offered as a kind of via media between the old establishment and the radical reform wanted by Jefferson. This called for a general tax on all citizens for the support of all Christian ministers. Everyone would have the assurance that his shilling went into the pocket of his minister, be he Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian or even Catholic.

Churchmen, foreseeing the doom of the old order, hoped to salvage something by creating the broad foundation of a plural establishment. Always before in history the establishment of religion had meant official sanction and support of a single state church. But now, in the course of religious controversy in Virginia, the concept took on new meaning: the civil support of Christianity without preference as to sect.

It was in part to close off this development that Jefferson drafted his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, in 1777. Two years later, after repeal of the levies on Anglicans, Jefferson introduced his bill in the assembly. Two plans were now before it. One, Jefferson’s, was a root-and-branch rejection of any civil authority in matters of religion and an affirmation of complete freedom of belief and worship. The other, the “general assessment” plan, which authorized taxation in support of the Christian religion regardless of sect, did so on traditional grounds — for instance, the recognized power of the state to diffuse knowledge, restrain vice, and further the peace and good order of society.

Neither plan could command a majority of the General Assembly in 1779 or for several years to come.

The conclusion of the controversy awaited the end of the Revolutionary War. In 1784, Congress sent Jefferson on a mission to France, and James Madison, his young friend, assumed the leadership of the reform party in the House of Delegates. Petitions again poured into the assembly.

‘An unhallowed perversion':

In the spring of 1785, Madison wrote his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” Handwritten and printed copies, without attribution of authorship, circulated throughout central Virginia. They were commonly attached to sheets of paper asking for signatures. The “Memorial” is a brilliant exposition of the philosophy crystallized in Jefferson’s statute: It proceeds from the same Enlightenment directives of reason and right, and reaches the same conclusions. Madison maintained that tax support subverted rather than sustained true religion — indeed, that it was “an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.” And Madison warned those who made light of the assessment plan, thinking it a harmless halfway point between the liberal skeptics and the sectarian religionists, of the dangers of compromising such a fundamental principle as religious freedom.

The argument was persuasive. When the General Assembly met in the fall, it received more than a hundred petitions on religion. Only 11 supported the general-assessment plan; many others, with some 11,000 signatures, were copies of the “Memorial and Remonstrance.”

Support for a plural establishment had virtually disappeared, and Madison seized the occasion to reintroduce Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. It passed with but one minor change. A senate amendment would have gutted the bill by striking the preamble, but the house stood firm, and the bill became law on Jan. 16, 1786.

Jefferson was U.S. Minister to France when the statute was enacted. He promptly saw to its publication.

Jefferson under scrutiny:

The statute laid the foundation for the unique American tradition of church-state relations. A few words should be said about some of the most common misconceptions about Jefferson and the statute. To address perhaps the most common fallacy: It is often maintained that nothing in the statute was meant to exclude governmental intrusion in matters of religion as long as the intrusion is on a neutral or nonpreferential basis. But that approach is precisely what was rejected in Virginia. And in the statute, after saying it is “sinful and tyrannical” to compel a person to support opinions he does not share, Jefferson went on to declare that even “forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion” is wrong.

Present-day neoconservatives and spokesmen for the religious right argue that a common religion is the necessary glue of the nation, that we began as a Christian people, and that however pluralist we may have become, the survival of the republic rests upon the foundation of Christian or perhaps Judeo-Christian belief. Again, the whole thrust of Jefferson’s philosophy was to reject that position, to reject any idea that a shared community of religious beliefs or of moral values, other than the value of freedom itself, was necessary to society. He sought to raise the republic on the inalienable rights of man, allowing every citizen sovereignty over his own mind and conscience.

Jefferson has never been without critics with regard to his own religion as well as his politics. There are some (more in the past than today) who look upon him as an atheist or infidel, and therefore an aberration in the American scheme of things; they charge that he had a hidden agenda hostile to Christianity. And so it is said that the statute, instead of aiming at freedom of religion, actually sought to impose upon the people a new, infidel religion of the Enlightenment, a kind of secul ar humanism destructive of traditional moral and religious values.

The University of Virginia, later founded on a purely secular basis, was widely denounced by clerics as a deistic enterprise of enormous proportions. Jefferson’s own religion was a version of deism, but he was not therefore hostile to ordinary religious belief and profession. As a modern philosopher, Herbert Schneider, has said, “The power and eloquence of Jefferson’s writing on religious freedom is due largely to his evident religious devotion.”

Unlike the anticlericalism of the Old World, Jefferson’s hatred of priesthoods and establishments did not involve him in hatred of religion. He wished for himself, and for his countrymen, not freedom from religion but freedom to pursue religious truth wherever reason and conscience led, and the more earnest and upright the pursuit, the more respect it won from him.

Building the ‘wall':

The Statute for Religious Freedom became a model for other American states old and new; moreover, its principles entered into the U.S. Constitution by way of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, for which we are largely indebted to Jefferson’s great collaborator, James Madison: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

As president of the United States, Jefferson in 1802 put a gloss on the clause which was destined to have far-reaching influence. Writing to a committee of Baptists in Connecticut, he said, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

At that time, and until 1940, the First Amendment, along with all the guarantees of the Bill of Rights, was held to be a restraint only on the national government. And so it rarely came into play, since most matters touching religion, or speech and press, belonged to the sphere of the state governments.

But beginning in 1940, the Supreme Court made the guarantees of the First Amendment, and ultimately of the Bill of Rights as a whole, applicable to the states. The justices on the bench and the advocates at the bar were much influenced in their understanding of the “free exercise” clause by their understanding of the Virginia statute and the circumstances that had produced it. As one of them, Justice Wiley Rutledge, said, “The great instruments of the Virginia struggle … became the warp and woof of our constitutional tradition.”

The justices also picked up Jefferson’s metaphor of “a wall of separation.” Plain and simple though it might seem, the metaphor was not easily applied to the many cases that now came before the Supreme Court. Justice Robert H. Jackson once remarked that the “wall of separation” described by the court was beginning to look like one of Jefferson’s serpentine garden walls at the University of Virginia. ###Principles etched in stone:

Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled in the United States at that time, was astounded by the coexistence of what he called “the spirit of liberty” and “the spirit of religion” in this country. In Europe, where joined, they were antagonists; in America both flourished although they were completely separate.

Thus the universal opinion at the time of the American Revolution — that, in Jefferson’s words, “civil government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment, and that the Christian religion would perish if not supported” — had been repudiated and replaced by a great new truth.

Appropriately, words from the Virginia statute are among those that grace the walls of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, and its great dome is encircled by his personal oath: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Nowhere in the world today is there more genuine freedom of conscience, and more respect for the separateness of church and state, than in the United States. It is a precious legacy.

Nevertheless there are powerful voices in the land that would rewrite history and undermine these revolutionary principles. More-subtle dangers lurk in adjudications by the courts. One particular Supreme Court ruling in 1990, the so-called Peyote Case, which upheld civil sanctions against the use of peyote in the worship rituals of Native Americans, led Congress three years later to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, mandating a return to high standards of state nonintervention.

President Clinton, on signing the act into law, remarked on the “majestic quality” of this reaffirmation of a two-centuries-old faith in the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson’s contribution to this long tradition was fundamental, as he must have believed it would be when he inscribed “Author … of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom” in his epitaph.

Merrill D. Peterson was the Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia for 25 years. This article originally appeared in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

b March 31, 1921 – d September 23, 2009

The Big Tent of Paganism

January 11, 2015 by John Beckett. Read his blog “Under the Ancient Oaks” and this post here

I like a “Big Tent” approach to Paganism.  Druids and Wiccans, Heathens and Hellenists, Thelemites and chaos magicians, shamans and seers, kitchen witches and tree huggers – there’s room for everyone.

What do all these people have in common, you ask?  Not a single thing.

But there’s still value in the Big Tent of Paganism.

photo courtesy of shutterstock

Imagine, if you will, a huge circus tent.  It’s supported by four large poles.  These are the four centers of Paganism:  Nature, the Gods, the Self, and Community.  To continue the circus metaphor, these aren’t rings you’re either inside or outside of, these are poles you’re closer to or farther away from.  Some Pagans are so close to one pole (center) they’re hugging them – they don’t care about the other three centers.  Others are close to two or three or even all four centers.

I’m primarily a Nature and Deity centered Pagan.  My love of hills and trees, the sun and the moon and the night sky, and my study of science brought me here.  My experience of the Gods gives me depth and meaning.  Read through this blog and you’ll see these are my primary concerns.

I have some interest in the Self – in refining my soul and improving my skills so as to be of greater service to the world.  I have some interest in Community – in building vibrant groups and resilient institutions to support our Great Work.  But while those are important, I don’t have the passion for them that I have for Nature and the Gods.

Now, imagine this tent has lots of people moving around in it.  Some are crowded tightly around one pole.  Others bounce from pole to pole to pole.  Eventually, though, most people find a spot they’re comfortable with, and they discover they’re not alone – there are others who have the same interests and passions.  Sometimes there’s already an organized tradition at that spot in the tent: say, Gardnerian Wicca or OBOD Druidry.  Sometimes there’s an informal gathering, like traditional witchcraft.  Other times there’s nothing and people decide to create a group, like the Coru Cathubodua priesthood of the Morrigan.  And some people insist on standing by themselves.

The flaps of this tent are up – there’s nothing to stop people from wandering in and out.  Some people find a gathering spot outside the tent.  Green Christians have a lot in common with Nature centered Pagans, but they aren’t inside our tent.  The Afro-Caribbean religions have varying degrees of Catholicism in them, but they’re generally considered to be in the tent.  What about Hinduism?  Some Hindus say they’re in, other Hindus insist they’re out.

There are no fences and there are no guards.  If you want to come in, you can come in.  If you want to go out, you can go out.  I prefer the biggest of Big Tents, but ultimately each group and each individual has to decide if they’re Pagan or not.

“If a word doesn’t have a clear meaning then it doesn’t mean anything at all!”  I hear this all the time and I strongly disagree – this argument is adolescent pedantry.  Paganism can’t be precisely defined because it doesn’t have boundaries – you aren’t in or out.  You’re closer to or farther from the four centers, and if you’re close enough to one or more of the centers to be inside the Big Tent, you’re a Pagan.

Our troubles with the term largely stem from the ideas that one tradition is normative of Paganism and that there are certain elements of belief and practice that are essential to Paganism.  Neither of these assumptions are correct.  Wiccan concepts and rituals are by far the most common, but all that means is that there are more people in the Wiccan area of the Big Tent.

When some polytheists insist “I’m not Pagan” what they’re usually saying is “my religion has nothing to do with the Wiccanish stuff all those folks are doing.”  That’s true, but as I see it they’re standing right beside the pole labeled “Gods” and that puts them clearly inside the Big Tent.

The reality is that the volume of Paganism is at a high, vague, Wiccanish / witchcraft level.  The depth is being developed at a very focused, very intense level. Interestingly, much of that is happening in witchcraft.  The fact that many people are practicing at a superficial level doesn’t stop others from practicing that same tradition very deeply.  It’s clear that as people settle into an area of the Big Tent, they soon find “Pagan” no longer completely describes what they do.

If a random person on the street asks me what I am, I may say I’m a Pagan.  If someone at Pagan Pride Day asks, I’ll say I’m a Druid.  If someone at a retreat asks, I’ll say I’m a polytheist Druid pledged to Cernunnos and Danu who worships many of the Celtic deities and occasionally others.

All of those labels are accurate and all are a helpful way to communicate, depending on the audience.

The Big Tent provides a visible, easy-to-find entry point for ordinary people who are looking for something their current religion isn’t providing.  And it makes it much easier for us to find others inside the tent who are doing the same things for the same reasons.

There may be nothing that is common to 100% of Pagans, but we have plenty of similar interests.  Almost all of us are concerned with promoting and protecting religious freedom and preventing the establishment of a majority religion.  Many of us are concerned with respecting Nature and caring for the environment, whether or not we believe the Earth is the body of a Goddess.  Many honor our ancestors, whether we pour libations to them or study their history or strive to live by their values.

overlapping circlesDraw circles around our groups and no one circle will include us all, but there’s lots and lots of overlap in our beliefs, practices, interests, and concerns – enough overlap to create and support things like Pagan Pride Day, Pantheacon, Patheos Pagan, The Wild Hunt, and Pagan music.  Individually, no one tradition is big enough to support these large endeavors.  Together we can.

We are not one.  There is no single Pagan religion and I have no desire to create one.  But the Big Tent of Paganism is a useful and beneficial approach to grow and support our many Pagan religions.

 

Solstice Light Poem

Light sliding sideways into the branches, the green

Blessed are those to be seen

For the light cannot be extinguished in our hearts or the grassy planes.

Spirit sweet, slipping shaft, dancing, prancing, shimmering soul.

Piercing the cold and dark– sweet, sharp, brilliant light

Mover of shadows, bringer of illumination and enlightenment

Constant as a lighthouse directing me home

warm candle light, rise and fall of the flame

light returns from dark, raising spirits, bringing joy and hope to all

Light warms me, enlightens me, show me the way.

Illuminates the connections between us all.

– Stephanie Bass

THE JOURNEY INTO SPIRIT: A PAGAN’S PERSEPCTIVE ON DEATH, DYING AND BEREAVEMENT

Journey into Spirit

A review of Kristoffer Hughes’ book The Journey into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective on Death, Dying and Bereavement by Maria Ede-Weaving

Druidry teaches us to honour death and to remember the dead with reverence. However, for most of us, our wider culture has hidden much of death’s processes from view.  The physical realities of this most inevitable and unavoidable rite of passage have been obscured and this has only served to intensify the fear of death and sever the connection to its deeper mysteries. We live in a world of plastic, a substance which by its very nature defies the laws of decomposition, and this seems to reflect on some inner level, the chronic fear with have of the dissolution and decay that are the vital foundations of renewal and life.

This is a subject close to my heart. I have lost most of my close family over time and last year my father died. We were very close and his death was unexpected; the grieving has been intense. When Philip asked me to read and review Kristoffer Hughes’ The Journey into Spirit: A Pagan’s Perspective on Death, Dying and Bereavement, I had mixed feelings – although of late I have sensed an emerging from the darker spaces of my grief, parts of me still feel a little raw, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to gaze into death’s face again quite so soon, even if only in the pages of a book. Despite my fears, I am so pleased that I read this wonderful book.

Continue reading…

The Queen of Morning

Originally posted on We Are All Here:

Image I approach her, but I do not speak until spoken to.

There is a fine mystery in this black walnut tree. And if I sit silently for long enough, maybe I’ll hear what it is.

I look at her every day before dawn, starting when I can just make her out against the sky.  Being near her feels like being near someone who is benevolent, powerful, rich and wise.  And somewhat intolerant.

She’s like a queen.

Walnut trees make beautiful, hard, rich brown wood, expensive and much prized. The nuts have a sweet, musky, woods-dirt flavor that reminds me of truffles.  They are locked away in a troll’s purse of rock-hard nutshell, and you really, really have to want the nutmeats to do the hammer-and-pick work of shelling them.  Just a handful will flavor a pound cake, but it will take you forever to get them, and your fingers can…

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Why I’m An OBOD Druid

-By John Beckett
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/

Over the past few weeks I’ve had multiple people ask me to tell them about OBOD: the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. Most are considering joining the Order and just as I did before I signed up, they want to pick the brain of someone who’s been there and done that. I’ve answered the individual questions, but there are probably others… which means it’s time to blog about it.

Like many people, I came into Paganism through Wicca. I wanted to be a Witch and I tried to be a Wiccan but it just wasn’t a good fit for me. But when I first read about Druidry, something clicked. This wasn’t something that looked interesting and cool – this was who I am. I didn’t choose Druidry, Druidry chose me.

Unfortunately, there were no Druid groves anywhere near me. When I realized I needed a group, I went to check out Denton CUUPS, and that was a good fit. Before long I found myself in a leadership role… a role I didn’t feel qualified to fill.

I knew I needed some training and I wanted training in Druidry. After some investigation and reflection, I signed up for the Bardic course of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I completed the Bardic course in 15 months, the Ovate course in 25 months, and the Druid course in 24 months. My certificate proclaiming me “a full member in the Druid grade” hangs on the same wall with my high school, college, and graduate diplomas.

That’s the “what” – it’s a story I’ve told many times. But the question of “why” remains – why do I still identify as an OBOD Druid when my current practice is focused on devotional polytheism?

OBOD Chosen Chief Philip Carr-Gomm

OBOD has an excellent distance learning program. There’s nothing quite like learning at the feet of an experienced, knowledgeable elder, and there are some traditions that teach no other way. The problem is finding an experienced, knowledgeable elder who isn’t already teaching more students than she can handle. Other traditions have distance learning and individual study programs and some of them are good – and in the end, no matter what kind of training program you follow, you have to do the work.

OBOD’s program is simply the best I’ve seen. Historian Ronald Hutton has said the OBOD course “arguably represents one of the major documents of British spirituality from the late twentieth century.” Practiced diligently, it can enable a motivated student to grow from knowing virtually nothing to becoming a competent Druid practitioner in a few years.

The downside of the OBOD program is the cost. The current price of the Bardic course is £215, which is $348 at today’s exchange rates. The other courses are similarly priced. Keep in mind this doesn’t just represent the cost of the lesson booklets – it’s how the Order supports itself. There are no other membership fees. It sounds like a lot, but how much do you spend on cable TV? When people balk at the cost, I have one recommendation: if the cost represents a hardship, don’t do it. If the cost represents a sacrifice, do.

OBOD provides a grounding in historical Druidry. What we know about the original Druids is inspirational, but there simply aren’t enough facts to build a practice around it. But history doesn’t jump from the Anglesey massacre in 61 CE to Ross Nichols and Isaac Bonewits in the second half of the 20th century. Druids never really left the collective imagination of the British Isles and while the 1717 date Nichols claimed for the founding of the order that would lead to OBOD is likely more mythical than historical, it is certain there were Druid orders operating in the 18th century.

These Revival Druids were not Pagans. But they laid the foundations for today’s mostly-Pagan Druidry, and they contributed non-orthodox ideas to the Christian culture – ideas that would influence the early modern Pagan movement. The Revival Druids are our spiritual ancestors. They deserve our respect and their ideas deserve our consideration.

OBOD provides a foundation and a framework for Pagan practice. Although OBOD is a non-creedal and non-doctrinal order, most of its material is presented in a Pagan context. It has roots in the Western Mystery Tradition: OBOD ritual casts circles, calls directions, and works with the four (or five) elements. It works with Gods and Goddesses, honors sacred sites, and emphasizes the sacredness of Nature. It celebrates the Wheel of the Year.

OBOD founder Ross Nichols was a friend and sometimes editor of Gerald Gardner, founder of Wicca. There is a story (that may or may not be true) that says Gardner originally wanted to celebrate the four solar holidays and Nichols wanted to celebrate the four Celtic fire festivals. They combined the two to create the modern Pagan calendar.

I found much that was familiar when I worked through the early Gwersi (lesson booklets), but I don’t think there was a single one where I didn’t learn something new. I wanted training to help lead a Pagan group and I found what I wanted.

House of Danu Gorsedd - 2009

OBOD provides connections and community. It is possible to move through the three grades and never interact with another Druid beyond your assigned mentors, who monitor progress and answer questions (of a factual nature – requests for interpretation are usually answered with “what do you think?”). Many OBOD members do exactly this.

But despite the lack of a local grove, I’ve made many personal connections at OBOD camps and through social media. More than a few of these connections have become deep friendships. I’ve also met Druids from other orders at OBOD events and through OBOD connections.

The training and education brought me into OBOD. The friendships I’ve made within the Order keep me active in OBOD.

Spiritual depth. It is possible to spend a lifetime studying the lessons of the three grades, practicing the meditations, performing the rituals, and participating in this-world activities they inspire. I know some OBOD Druids who do this, and if that works for you I recommend it. There is great depth in the teachings of the Order.

But while this approach would be very Nature-centered and Self-centered, it wouldn’t be very Deity-centered. This is why, ultimately, OBOD isn’t enough for me. Polytheism is an essential part of my religious and spiritual life and while OBOD is compatible with polytheism, it doesn’t emphasize it. My interactions with the Gods and my relationships with Them require a level of devotion OBOD doesn’t teach.

That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with OBOD – it just means OBOD, by itself, isn’t enough for me. But the spiritual techniques it taught me have been very helpful in exercising that devotion.

There are many fine Druid orders and I have friends in several. Honestly, I don’t know any Druid orders I’d recommend you avoid. If I had unlimited time I’d probably join one or two more just to see what I could learn from them. There is no “best” Druid order, just different orders that fit individuals very well or not so well. If you feel called to Druidry, do some on-line investigation, read a few books, talk to some people who have first-hand experience, and make the best choice for you.

This is why I’m an OBOD Druid.

Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2014/10/why-im-an-obod-druid.html#ixzz3F82GRiK6