Archives For Sam Webster

Today there are engineered foods designed to not trigger leptin, the hormone that tells us we are full, so we eat the whole bag. Planned obsolescence has us throwing away rather than repairing appliances and other consumer goods, so they go to landfills and scrap yards. Advertising is intended to cause desire and dissatisfaction, so we buy things we don’t need and don’t even want.

We are told that economic growth is the way for all of us to financially succeed. Yet the growth since the 2008 crisis has been entirely to the benefit of the ownership class; this tide floats only the yachts. The exemplars of things that grow uncontrollably are cancer and algae blooms. The first kills its body; the second drowns itself in its waste. How can we believe in an economic doctrine that contradicts how we know Nature works?

The Pagan way of walking lightly on the earth is a value, even if often only an aspiration. It is a way of expressing the experienced sanctity of this world in which we live; a way of positively valuing the natural and the sustainable. It is rooted in our experience of ourselves in integration with the world, especially the natural world around us. This spirituality (spiritual knowing) leads to ethical decisions and policies regarding our patterns of consumption, intended to reduce their negative effects.

The alternative to this are the zombies. The current form of this trope is the deceased, and the newly so, become mindless consumers…of consumers: us. In this image, ‘we’ are the prey-food. But we also represent all consumer goods, and the zombies are the ultimate consumers. They have no limits to their consumption, nor any apparent goal, save to consume, and perhaps to make more consumers; that is zombies.

Zombies from "Night of the Living Dead" (Public Domain)

Zombies from “Night of the Living Dead” (Public Domain)

Zombies are also lacking one other critical component: interiority. They are mindless and unfeeling, relentless and untiring. There is “no one home” in the mass-consumer zombie. From this comes the zombie hunter’s ethic: zombies can be killed without qualm. Humans have long had classes of beings that can be thoughtlessly killed: slaves, infidels, foreigners, never mind the animals, even plants, ecologies and so many more. Their otherness makes them easy to slay. The zombies are aggressive, which makes it ethically easier.

Where does this lack of interiority in the zombie trope come from? There is a place in life where we meet humans that appear to have no interiority. They are silent until their stop comes. Then they all move without any apparent cognizance of each other. These are the people on the street, on the bus, the train, even in the other commuting cars on the road ways. Deep down inside, with the flickering of the subway lights, do the fellow riders look pale and bloodshot, ready to rise up and eat you? Consumers, consuming all in their path. It is the image of our society.

This image is a failure of spirituality. It is a failure of the lived experience of the interiority of the Other. Most folks can barely conceive of the feelings and thoughts of others; not naturally, of course. The dulling of their lives on the treadmill of indentured servitude servicing debt narrows the horizon of the ‘cared for’ to their families, if they are fortunate, or only to themselves. Arms stretched out to clutch at the desired, never to be satisfied, yet consuming all. What else is there to do?

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Trees and sun in Oregon. Photo: Jason Thomas Pitzl

Pagans recognize that an animistic perspective is a profound contradiction to this horror show. While it takes many forms throughout the world, animism is fundamentally the intuition of interiority and subjectivity in all entities about us, whether humans, animals, plants singular or in collectives, ecologies, even machinery, buildings, natural features, nations and so forth.

For some at the beginning, this is the mere knowledge that the Other has interiority. But with development comes the taste and touch of other minds and presences. Over time these presences become relationships, friendships, even kinship. Many Pagans have this experience; mature Pagans live in it. Here the subway lights steady, warm to flesh from their pale florescence, and we perceive the inner lives, joys, suffering, and purpose in those who sit beside us. We feel with them and share in those subjective realities. We feel their fears of the zombie apocalypse, the revelation that everyone else is out to eat them. But, we catch an eye, share a smile that spreads and warms the entire car. We see the person, not the consumer.

Our society in its current, raging pathology does not support seeing our neighbors as ourselves. We are isolated in our competition for the few and the rare, even when the shop shelves are full. Even in the pews, they all sit in rows staring up at the man with the book, not seeing each other alongside themselves. The zombies are a pale, aggressive reflection of our consumer, consuming culture. Yet when the light shifts, the color to their faces return, their feelings within become visible. When they are animate, ensouled and living beings, we see them as none other than ourselves.

In the animistic view, we meet the domestic cat and dog, the wild bird and squirrel, the creek, the mountain, and the sea all as living entities, to talk with, cry with, to support and be supported by, just as we do with the rest of our two-legged neighbors.

Can we see in the zombies flesh-eating dissatisfaction, in their out-reaching arms the desire to connect with other? Is there anybody out there? Would they sit beside us ungrasping if they were fed and satisfied? If the food filled, if the goods were reparable, if the media did not dangle forlorn carrots of unobtainable delights to sell laundry detergent, would the zombies stop?

In the sixth century BCE the Buddha taught that in all experience is dukkha, unsatisfactoriness, and that the way to end this is to not grasp after the transitory. Our overculture makes insatiable zombies of us all, trapped in profound suffering, creators of suffering. Yet the nectar of subjectivity recognized in all, the profound insight of animism, cures the zombie plague. Then we meet our neighbors, human and not, and know we are not alone.

Ministers are among the legally mandated with a duty to report abuse. But what a minister is in the Pagan community, is a vague notion. Some folks call themselves ministers or “reverend” because they lead a group of Pagans in religious activity. While this is certainly an appropriate position for a minister, the profession of ministry requires a lot of education (4 to 5 years) and that education is rarely undertaken by Pagan religious leaders.

[Photo Credit: Paganavebury / CC. Wikimedia]

Handfasting [Photo Credit: Paganavebury / CC. Wikimedia]

The expense is only one of the barriers. Many of self-declared ministers are skilled priest-folk, but that is not the same office as minister. I’ve written about priesthood and ministry elsewhere. In brief, a minister, in most congregations, is at least a Master of Divinity. They have been through an education that is partially academic, but also one balanced by a significant amount of spiritual and personal challenge delivered by a seminary, and informed by the deep experience of those who have gone before.

In the past five hundred years, a significant body of learning and experience has developed in the seminary community, which can only be transmitted by studying in one because it is a culture – not simply information or technique. It is a body of knowledge and skill richly informed by the enormous amount of error that the professional religious community has foisted upon those they serve. This may seem like a strange endorsement, but those errors are the precious stuff of wisdom. Much of the spiritual care that humans benefit from looks no different from spiritual harm. The only way to know is empirical; it has to be tried. Then each success and failure has to be passed to the next occasion and to the next generation of religious professionals. This is done in seminary.

The ‘challenging’ of the minister-in-training is an important part of rendering a human capable of serving and helping another. Mostly, we, who go into the helping professions, do so for egoic reasons, which poisons any help we give. In training for a profession such as social work or psychotherapy, the practitioner has to be ‘broken’ of self-centered impulses. This is no less for the minister-to-be; rather even more so given the spiritual content of their service and profound responsibility that it entails. The ‘challenging’ is an ordeal that tempers the person who would serve in deeply transformative ways.

[Photo Credit: Elijah Nouvelage, Flickr/CC]

[Photo Credit: Elijah Nouvelage, Flickr/CC]

Training is only the first step. It renders the master of divinity fit for the task, but that is only half the story. There must also be the contribution of the community to making an effective minister. This has two parts, one permanent and the other temporal. The first is ordination. This is where a community, often by means of its leadership, acknowledges the training and preparation of a minister-to-be and consecrates that person to the task of spiritually serving that community. This, and whatever act of blessing, sometimes laying on of hands, is what makes a person a ‘Reverend’. The second, more temporal part, is the actualization of that blessing in a call-to-serve a specific community. What is most important to note here is that the community has the power and responsibility to invest its minister(s) with delegated powers and a mandate to act on behalf of and in service to that community.

Which brings me back to the mandated duty to report. Naturally, everyone has a responsibility to report abuse. What is different for those legally mandated to report is that they can be brought up on charges if they don’t fulfill the mandate and report the abuse.

A minster, for the reasons above, has a legally-mandated duty to report sexual abuse of minors, abuse of elders, as well as reporting responsibilities with respect to harm to self (suicide) and harm to others (assault, murder.) This is founded on the presumption that the minister is trained in the ability to recognize abuse and has been given the responsibility to observe, counsel, and correct the community they serve. Without that training, the identification of the problem may produce unacceptable numbers of false positives and negatives. Without the community’s mandate, what right does the minister or person have to speak up?

We can remediate the lack of training with specific training. I hear that at the upcoming COG Grand Council/Merry Meet there will be two different trainings given. One of which is explicitly about the mandated duty to report. This is excellent, although making sure this training is universal for all who take leadership roles is a problem yet to be solved.

However, the more general problem of mandate remains. Outside of our small groups, which is where most of our leadership exercises its (rightful) authority, at larger events where the problem of predatory behavior is more prevalent, who has the mandate to speak? The event coordinators already have their hands full and can’t be everywhere, so other means of observation and reporting have to be present. We can easily acknowledge that leaders in general have this responsibility implicitly. However, we can see from the reports that we have on this problem, this is insufficient to solve it. Some are taking responsibility on themselves, such as the Council of the Phoenix. While noble to step up, who has given them this authority? No one, and so they wisely limit themselves (thus far) to being a resource hub.

[Photo Credit:  RainArashi, deviantArt/CC]

[Photo Credit: RainArashi, deviantArt/CC]

One approach is to establish a certification body. This would be an organization of members of our Pagan community, presumably with appropriate training, who could then establish standards on the basis of law and best practices. Then individuals, organizations, and events can apply for, duly receive, and proudly proclaim that they have been certified to comply with the law and those practices.

Another approach, which ideally would build on the certification principle, is to establish professional organizations of Pagan leaders and likewise assert the law and best practices. This would then lead to a culture of self-policing. The members of the organization would be mutually bound to observe, report and correct their fellows to maintain the high standards of the organization.

Of course, having more Pagan leaders who have been through the seminary process would also help. Scholarship and other support for those who feel called to the work are ways our community can cultivate good leadership. The Pantheon Foundation in our very first year of operation in service to the community has established the Diotima Prize to provide support (this year $1000) to a Pagan Master of Divinity student.

Yes, this comes down to a matter of power. Who do we empower to act on our behalf? And who will watch the watchmen? These are not easy questions or we would have solved them by now. But, now we have to get to work on them.

More Information:

NCSL: Mental Health Professionals’ Duty to Protect/Warn

Childwelfare.gov: Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Abuse and Neglect

Missouri: Missouri, Ministers Duty to Report

Washington: Confidentiality and Mandatory Reporting: A False Dilemma?

California: Mandatory Reporting (Elderly)

California: Mandatory Reporting (Children)

Have you heard about the GM ignition switch recall? It was a long-standing problem that resulted in a number of deaths but ignored by the executure. Rightly, many are horrified but few have the magical insight or the systems theory to understand how GM could be so stupid. Here is how a Pagan might understand the problem…

Corporations are useful tools. They are one of the most effective and efficient ways of humans to work collectively. They can be built and focused on very specific or very general tasks, and bound to those tasks legally by the very documents that form the corporation. They can have whatever governance structure the establishers desire: autocratic, democratic, consensus, or whatever. In the creation of a corporation, there exists one of the few ways private citizens can effectively establish what amount to laws for those involved in the project and how that project will function in the world. It also has the virtue of being able to outlast any of its founders, and so it is an effective way of projecting values across generations. But of course, none of that has to happen. Corporations can be created to simply seek profit to the exclusion of all else, and be run in a completely autocratic manner. Today many are.

[Photo Credit: Bo Nash/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Bo Nash/Flickr]

Much like a hammer, a corporation can be used to build or kill. When ill-formed and ill-governed, a corporation can be a nightmare. This is what we are seeing in GM. It is huge, distributed and diverse, making it hard to govern. Its sole purpose is to make profit for its shareholders, which is the crux of the problem. This principle determines the outcome of decisions: Will this add or detract from shareholder/owner profit?

Pagans, due to our magical inheritance, and Jews for similar but older reasons, know of a creature that is very much like the corporation: the Golem. The most famous Golem tale is from Prague during the reign of Rudolf II, where Rabbi Lowe made the figure of a man out of clay and using Divine words animated it to protect the Jewish Quarter from pogrom, what we would call today ethnic cleansing. In the bad version of the story, the Golem runs amuck and can’t be stopped. It is extremely strong, has the power to work tirelessly and is (mostly) invulnerable. But that which is made by word can only be unmade by word.  So the Rabbi, who wrote Emet (meaning Truth, spelled Aleph Mem Tov) on the brow of the Golem to bring it to life, erased the Aleph to spell Mot, meaning death, and deactivated the creature.

The similarity to a corporation is striking. Like a Golem, a corporation is made by words; its articles of incorporation once signed and seal by the Secretary of State bring it to life. At one time ‘life’ might have seemed like hyperbole, but living in the age of the Citizens United ruling, corporations have personhood before the law and with it ‘human’ rights. It will continue doing what it was set up to do unless commanded or forced to stop. This can be very hard to do when those with the power of command are benefiting (making profit) from the creature’s actions. It is effectively immortal, only to stop functioning when it runs out of cash or credit, its life blood so to speak. It can only ‘die’ if it is disbanded by sale, in which case it continues in another form, or experience ‘true’ death by the revocation of its articles of incorporation, which will actually end it. Like the Golem, it will only stop when its words of creation are ‘erased’.

40 Wall Street [Photo Credit: Massmatt/Flickr]

40 Wall Street [Photo Credit: Massmatt/Flickr]

Golems are also notoriously dumb. Most don’t speak so that is quite literal. But they are also stupid, in that they will do what they are told perpetually until stopped. There is no thought or will or compassion to guide them, only purpose. So due to bad governance, the corporation GM plodded along making profits because it did not see that the death of customers was a problem. No one took responsibility for the equipment failure, which would have taken less than a dollar part to fix.

We’ll come back to the Golem in a bit. The ‘real’ problem GM and others face is that the problem, in this case bad governance, is the result not of human intent (no one wanted anyone to die), but the unanticipated properties of the complex system that is the GM corporation. And this is true of all systems. In GM, they did not recognize that their governance structure, motivated primarily by profit, took no responsibility for fixing the issue until forced.

The problem with Golems is that they are not persons; although some versions of the story make them so. They are ordered to their task and can’t choose to stop. Choice is the basis for morality, and so without it, the Golem can’t be the moral actor. This dynamic plays out in these two posts about GM and Enron from Forbes Magazine and Robert Reich centered on the “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one” meme. They each have their points, but I’m with Reich on this one. The persons who made the moral choices did not pay the same kinds of penalties that a human would for the same outcomes. They did not go to prison; they were not executed, although Enron was disbanded. I’m for much harsher penalties. Besides holding the executives and other deciders to criminal account, when a corporation is charged with any crime, all trading on its stock should be stopped. This prevents the stockholders from being able to unload what may suddenly become worthless property. It also makes the stockholders accountable for how their property behaves, and therefore they are much more likely to exert their own responsibility for right governance. Should a corporation be guilty of murder, immediate liquidation of all its assets; the end of all trading of its stock, and the revocation of its articles of incorporation is about the closest we can get to execution. I would look to the outcomes to determine if creditors should benefit from the liquidation.

As Pagans know, the other side of the coin from death is life, and this case immortality. Corporations don’t die unless killed. As it stands they can kill and pay wergild and continue in business. The unfolding profit motive makes the risk calculation simple: if the profit is in the billions and the price for killing humans, never mind other species and ecosystems, is only millions, than it is acceptable to kill humans. Since making profit is the life of corporations, killing people while making profit is just good business. It also puts corporations higher than humans on the food chain. I have a problem with this.

It is no accident that, up until now, humans were on the top of the food chain. We struggled long and hard to get there. We tend to eliminate all large predators wherever we live. It is why I don’t believe in vampires; we would simply hunt them down and kill them. Now we have created a kind of Golem, a system-creature, in ways that we can scarcely govern. We didn’t have to, and there are many corporations which aren’t, but we did create enough of them to threaten us all. It is profitability that blinds corporations to climate change, to the inequities of our medical system, and to the cruelties heaped upon the economically disadvantaged. What will happen when robots have rendered 80% of the work force redundant?

Will we tolerate beings that prey on us? Generally humans don’t.

Taking Place

Sam Webster —  May 23, 2014 — 11 Comments

Ours is a religion of living rooms and backyards. How this will change as we Pagans become more prominent in society remains to be seen, but the conversation is underway. Recently Rynn Fox focused her Perspectives column here on The Wild Hunt on the “Gods of Place” and elicited a somewhat surprisingly uniform set of views on the topic, centering on the spiritual beings associated with places.

Moving here from my other blogspaces, I am more mindful today of the place than its spirit, the tension we have with place and what the future will require of us as we take our place in the wider world.

Humans have been making places special far back into the depths of time. After visiting the cave on the Gower peninsula of Wales where the Red Lady of Paviland was buried some thirty-three thousand years ago and which was used for (likely) ritual purposes for some eleven thousand years, I found a timescale in my mind that I could scarcely comprehend. My civilization is not as old as this place had been used.

Below Paviland Cave on the Gower [© Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons]

Below Paviland Cave on the Gower [© Copyright Jeremy Bolwell and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons]

Living in America, a third generation child of immigrants, I wonder where my sacred spaces are? When I was a young Catholic, the churches were sanctuaries (my parents helped build three), and some of the buildings were magnificent. Once I realized we weren’t worshiping the same God, I no longer found those places quite as congenial. Many Pagans find the locus of the sacred in Nature. I’ve crossed this continent by ground seven times and seen majestic natural spaces. In each case I was struck by the feeling of sanctity. Here in Northern California, we have Redwood groves whose hushed and dappled columns move so many to declare them cathedrals.

The First Peoples, of course, have many holy sites on this continent. We know of some, but they are not always sanguine about us using them, or think us foolish for visiting places abandoned by all but ghosts, like Chaco Canyon.

In Europe Pagans are confronted by a different situation. First off there are many ruins, some very prehistoric, cairns, long barrows, dolmens, standing stones and stone circles. Once they were thought to be Druidic, now we know them to be much older, although maybe the Druids used them too. Who wouldn’t? Nowadays they are claimed by contemporary Pagans as belonging to our Ancestors, but since the genetic relationship between us and these immensely old sites is dubious to non-existent, whose are they? What should they be used for? The classic example is Stonehenge at Solstice. What a crowd! And Druids presiding!

It is a serious issue in Europe. The tensions between the archeologists, the responsibility of the state to preserve an important heritage, the desire to offer worship at ancient sacred sites, and the resistance of certain parties, theist and non, to such worship makes for a complex power dynamic. I am personally quite sure that with good communications and affirmed shared values to preserve the space, the right kinds of offerings and material prayers could certainly be arranged. (Water libations are not going to hurt any outdoor ancient site.) As Pagans become more socially, economically, and thus politically powerful, we will have the opportunity to participate effectively in the right use and preservation of these sacred places. We have a duty to preserve the past which is even greater than our present desire to worship, for we, better than most people before us, know that civilizations are evanescent.

Pantheon [Photo Credit: Richjheath Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

Pantheon [Photo Credit: Richjheath Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

But then there are the cathedrals of Europe. So many of them were built on places considered holy by the pre-Christian peoples, which is mostly why the churches were built there. Folks continued to worship in the same place, only differently. Today many of these splendid buildings stand mostly empty as Christian populations decline. I can’t help but think, Can we have them back now? You can keep (most of) your art. We’ll keep them open and preserve them for posterity. Fortunately for Pagans, most cathedrals don’t have pews, so we can just clear the chairs out for dancing and circles. (If they have pews, we can save some for the sidelines, but the rest will make a lovely bonfire.) My eye is on the Pantheon of Rome. While it may not actually have been used for worship by the Romans (the debate is not settled), it was the first building taken over by the Church and used for worship in the city of Rome. They have plenty of their own buildings now. Can we have it back? Alas, I am not Italian and have no standing to ask…

In the States, we build new places where we can buy them. In the country or in the cities, Pagan sanctuaries, stone circles, even monastic sites are being founded. Yet the “Pagan Retreat Center” is something of an epitome of failure. How many of us have fled the city to build a facility, only no one came, the bills piled up and we had to abandon our dreams? At the Pantheon Foundation, we have already received several requests for help with new Pagan land. The challenges of capital development and cash flow dog our community. Yet twenty families can put together a church without much fuss. Here in San Francisco Bay, we have dozens of these little churches. A question we cannot afford to ignore is why we can’t do this for ourselves?

In the ancient world, there were a number of ways of selecting sites for worship. One was social, establishing altars, shrines and temples for the benefit of a city and so were located in high or central places determined by the polis. The other, far more prominent, was to establish a place because of a theophany. The Deity showed Itself to someone at some place which thereafter became a locus of worship. Or perhaps the Deity told someone to set up an altar or shrine at some suitable location, like when Odysseus was told to carry an oar inland until someone asked where he was carrying that threshing pole (they did not recognize the oar), and there he was to set up the shrine to Poseidon, make sacrifice, and expiate the crime of blinding one of His sons. On so many ancient altars it is written that it was set up in thanksgiving for the gift of the Deity, some act of power saving a life, or liberation from suffering, or granting a benefit, or in expiation as with Odysseus for a wrongdoing. Then others could come, remember the Greatness of the Deity, and there offer sacrifice.

But this is a world where most of the land was unclaimed and where a shrine would be respected. Recently I set up a small herm at a crossroads near my home, and within twenty-four hours, the engraved stone was gone. We live in a very different world.

How are we to establish enduring places of worship in Nature, which we so love? How do we respond to theophanies? How can we, when we meet the numinous in some location create enduring space for worship to take place? As Pagans grow in power in our society, this will become easier, but it will require forethought to do well. Let us begin thinking about how we will take place as holy…

[Photo Credit: Jose M. Vazquez/Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Jose M. Vazquez/Flickr]

There is another side of this issue of place that needs be addressed before ending. The Christian interregnum scattered us, but like seeds we grow again spreading our way into new lands. While for many of us in the States that scattering separates us from the ancient sanctuaries of our Gods (please take care of them!), it has forced us to learn how to make wherever we are sacred (to ourselves, it always was sacred).

As our spiritual and scientific understanding grew, we also learned that the center of the world is where we stand at any moment. With sufficient depth of practice any place can be experienced as supremely holy. It can be said that we are no longer dependent on the ancient places. No longer can our religion be suppressed by tearing down our places of worship or stripping our temples of our sacred icons, relics, writings, and so on. We are mobile. We are on the internet. With a candle and a prayer we can make any living room into the Temple of the Gods, the Hall of Initiation, the Center of the Cosmos.

But I still want the Pantheon back…