Archives For James French

(By James French)

The discussions around the idea of “sustainability” can easily degenerate into noise. This is because, while quite a number of different perspectives agree that the current manner in which our civilization operates cannot be sustained, the reasons for this and the ways in which we can correct the problem are by no means settled issues. The problem is obvious, the solution, if there is one, is not.

Personally, I have found much food for thought in the ideas of John Michael Greer. His explorations of Peak Oil and its ramifications are very thorough. Particularly, I find his call to see our current situation as a “predicament” or a situation we must deal with rather than a problem to be solved, to be useful in thinking about the current crisis.

As Greer says, our current industrial civilization was basically designed to “convert resources into waste in the most efficient way possible.” Obviously this is a drastic shift from the “progressive” narratives that we’ve grown up with. The problem with those narratives is that they are built on the assumption that natural resources will always be with us in abundance. This is simply not the case, and the transition to other forms of energy production would appear to be twenty-five years late and only part of the picture.

There are also sociological implications to this. The sort of civilization that requires vast reserves of finite resources to operate is one that will find itself involved in constant warfare to secure them. This has already happened with oil, and is likely to expand into wars over water in the coming decades. With this will come civil wars and other sorts of social disintegration beyond the scope of this current discussion.

It is safe to say that most people push these rather ugly realities into the background of their daily thoughts. I don’t think it’s fair to make a charge of apathy or callous disregard in most cases. When these are expressed, I suspect discomfort more than actual lack of compassion. It is difficult to just get by. The big picture is often too big to deal with for people who are simply struggling with the every day dramas and traumas of modern life.

Among these are the Modern Pagans, some of whom contemplate, on occasion, the performance of a prosperity spell. A fair percentage of the time, someone will bring up the question of whether such an action is appropriately spiritual. Usually the argument will be settled by saying that Pagans do not reject the material world, and so doing work for prosperity is not somehow offensive to our beliefs.

Given the situation, economic, ecological, and social, I think this is quite the wrong place to start thinking from. It assumes the ubiquitous “all things being equal” clause, and all things are demonstrably not equal. What does “prosperity” mean when we, as a civilization, are engaged in what can only be seen as a sustained effort to destroy ourselves and our habitat? That is the question I think needs to be asked.

While there are no easy answers to this, and any attempt to formulate a plan on my part would be partial and based on my own ideological pre-dispositions, I think it is possible to suggest a direction, a tendency that, like a celebration of the material world, is fully compatible with Paganism, and indeed gives it a bit more depth. We already have a piece of it in the concept of interconnection. But interconnection alone tends to focus, in practice, on very intimate, individual relationships. This is because broader, more inclusive concepts of interconnection are generally too abstract to be personally meaningful. You don’t feel the connection between yourself and the migrant worker who picked the strawberries on your pancakes this morning, or the large and increasingly militarized police force and your quiet Sunday morning. Your intellect may be aware of these things, but the guts don’t buy it.

Slovak theorist Slavoj Zizek is fond of saying that, in order to solve the ecological problems of the day, we need to become less connected with nature. Our embeddedness in the Web of Life, says Zizek, actually distorts our perspective. We may know intellectually that the carbon dioxide coming from our cars and our power plants is slowly making the planet less and less habitable for our kind of life-form. But, again, the gut level of experience doesn’t really lead us to believe it deep down. He suggests taking our relationship with nature to an almost gnostic level of abstraction in order to restore ecological balance.

While I find this more than a little extreme, and suspect the “Madman of Theory” is being more than slightly facetious in order to make a point, I do think he might be on to something. It’s the forest/tree problem. In order to get to some sort of resting point in terms of a view of prosperity that honors both intimate interconnection and abstract whole, a look at a key doctrine from another Tradition may be in order.

In the Mahayana Tradition of Buddhism one encounters two important concepts. The first is lovingkindness. (I’m not sure why they always scrunch the two words together like that. It probably has to do with trying to distinguish it from Western assumptions about those two words as separate concepts.) This is a form of basic, relational interconnection. It concerns the way in which one relates to those they regularly encounter. The specific meditation practice for this is called Metta Bhavana. In it, one cultivates lovingkindness for progressively broader groups of people, and also increasingly difficult individuals. Eventually one gets to “all sentient beings,” but this is still a rather personal kind of connection. It stops at wishing people well.

The more abstract form of connection, and the one that I think would do us the most good in terms of thinking about prosperity, is Boddhichitta. This has a number of fairly poor translations, one being “Wisdom Attitude.” What it refers to is the desire to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. There are also progressive stages to this, each one involving more commitment and discipline.

Now, Modern Pagans can be a little averse to some conceptions of “Enlightenment.” Especially if their only experience with Buddhism is Theravada, where the specific goal is to abandon materiality altogether. Obviously this does not fit with anything Pagans believe. However, in the Mahayana traditions, particularly Vajrayana and the highest esoteric schools such as Dzogchen, the material world is seen as arising equally from Emptiness, and in fact being identical with it. These schools of non-duality express what amounts to a quite well developed concept of immanence.

The difference is that the goal is much “bigger.” Translating into Pagan terms, we can see ourselves as part of a sentient Cosmos, or Goddess. Nut, the Goddess of the Night Sky, would be a good image here in terms of vastness. We are all “stars,” as it were, in the body of this all encompassing, and all pervasive, Deity.

But our first experience is of separation. We are individual units with our own concerns for survival. Then we begin to notice and care for larger and larger groups of people. Eventually, we may be able to see beyond our own sufferings to that of others, and realize that it is the holding on to the smaller, pettier concerns that creates this suffering. We want to help others “wake up” to this wonderful, all encompassing Joy that is the Cosmos we all came from and share space in.

In this sense, the “wealth” is really already there. There may be artificial constraints to getting it, but the actual raw material we need to work in the world is all around us. We have an innate intelligence that can guide us to the best way of using our talents to acquire what we need in order to do this Great Work. “What we need to do the work” may not look like conventional ideas of wealth. But, in the end, we are part of the Cosmos, and there is no question of poverty in such a vast context. It is only a question of how we use that wealth.

We can squander our innate inheritance, as so many in past and current generations have done and continue to do. In that case, the world becomes more poisoned, more oppressive, less livable for our kind of bodies. Or, we can learn to use what we have been given to help ourselves and others. One cannot truly help one without helping the other, since ultimately we are all interacting facets of a larger diamond. We all shimmer or shatter together. This is Boddhichitta.

The poison and the pain of our lives are first born in our minds. Through no fault of our own we get caught up in trivial games that only serve to distract and irritate us, diverting us from the core fact of our separate existence: it hurts. But this division only makes reunion more joyous, and we have all we need to accomplish it. We have only to recognize it, which can be, we must admit, incredibly difficult.

But the consequences of not doing so are too grave. We can no longer fritter away our lives on small drama and the acquisition of toys to distract us. It is time to realize that, even if we are idle, in a broader sense we are always working, always weaving. And the results of our work show how much attention we’ve given it.

There are times when you just can’t get to the computer for several hours per day to blog, one of those is when you’re trying to pack and engage in a cross-country move. This week I’ll be pulling up stakes and moving from the Midwest (Milwaukee) to the Pacific Northwest (specifically, Eugene, Oregon). But don’t despair! While I’ll be driving through Montana with my wife and two cats (two, upset, angry, cats), The Wild Hunt will be featuring a wide assortment of vibrant, challenging, and innovative voices from within (and occasionally from without) modern Paganism while I’m gone. Here’s the run-down of The Wild Hunt’s amazing guest bloggers!

July 14thBrendan Myers

Dr. Brendan Myers, Ph.D. is the author of several critically acclaimed books on the subject of ethics and philosophy, environmentalism, Celtic and European mythology, folklore, society and politics, and spirituality. They have been used as inspirational and educational resources by college professors, social activist groups, interfaith groups, Celtic cultural associations, and even humanist societies, in many countries around the world. Brendan’s work has appeared in numerous magazines, podcasts, and radio shows (including America’s NPR). He is the 2008 recipient of OBOD’s prestigious Mt. Haemus Award for recent research in Druidry.

July 15thElysia Gallo

Elysia Gallo is an Acquisitions Editor at Llewellyn Worldwide, the oldest and largest independent New Age publisher in the United States. She acquires books for publication in such topics as Witchcraft, Wicca, Paganism, magic(k), herbalism, and the paranormal. She lives in St. Paul, MN with her husband and two cats.

July 16thCat Chapin-Bishop

Wiccan since the late ’80s, Cat Chapin-Bishop has also been Quaker since 2001. Cat’s essays have appeared in Laura Wildman’s “Celebrating the Pagan Soul”, “The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies”, the Covenant of the Goddess newsletter, and “Enchante: The Journal for the Urbane Pagan”. In addition to her work as a Wiccan HPs, Cat is the former Chair of Cherry Hill Seminary’s Pastoral Counseling Department, and she currently serves on the Ministry and Worship Committee of Mt. Toby Quaker meeting. Cat and her husband maintain Quaker Pagan Reflections, a blog dedicated to exploring the connections between Pagan spirituality and Quaker practice. They reside in Northampton, Massachusetts, where they attempt to live peacefully in the midst of chaos.

July 17thLupa

Lupa is the author of “Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic” and “A Field Guide to Otherkin”. She’s also the co-author of “Kink Magic: Sex Magic Beyond Vanilla” with Taylor Ellwood, and a contributor to the “Magick on the Edge” anthology and “Manifesting Prosperity: A Wealth Magic Anthology”. Additionally, Lupa works as an associate editor, layout tech, and nonfiction publicity/promotions manager for Immanion Press/Megalithica Books. Lupa uses the term pagan for simplicity’s sake, though more accurately she describes herself as a totemist, an animist and a pantheist. She has been studying pagan religions and magical topics for twelve years and practicing for ten years. Currently she is developing and training in therioshamanism.

July 18thJohn Morehead

John Morehead is a researcher, writer, and speaker in intercultural studies, new religious movements, theology and popular culture. He has an M.A. degree in intercultural studies from Salt Lake Theological Seminary which included a thesis on Burning Man Festival. He also has an avid interest in aspects of pop culture, particularly myth and archetype as well as the social, cultural and religious dimensions of fantasy, sci fi,and horror. John lives in the greater Salt Lake City area with his wife and two children. Be sure to check out his excellent TheoFantastique blog!

July 19th - Caroline Kenner

A longtime Washington D.C. activist in in feminism and environmentalism, Caroline Kenner now uses her skills to advocate for modern Pagans. In 2006 and 2007 Kenner called pan-Pagan rallies in Washington D.C. to demand religious freedom and equality. The 2007 rally was particularly auspicious as it celebrated the recently-won right to place the Pentacle, equivalent to the Cross, Star, or Crescent, on military grave markers. The event united several large Pagan organizations working to establish Pagan military chaplains and the approval of other specific Pagan symbols worn by Pagan and Heathen veterans. In addition to her activism, Caroline is a graduate of The Foundation for Shamanic Studies‘ Three Year Program in Advanced Shamanism and Shamanic Healing. Caroline also holds an A.B. from Bryn Mawr College and a M.S. from Boston University. She has practiced shamanism since 1989.

July 20th - Chas Clifton

Chas S. Clifton has been blogging since 2003, when he converted his Pagan magazine column, “Letter from Hardscrabble Creek,” into a blog. A widely published Pagan writer, he is the author of “Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca and Paganism in America”. He also edits “The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies”.

July 21stJames R. French

James R. French has been interested in Magick and Paganism since adolescence. He is an Adept of the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn and a Reiki Master. (Mr. French wants us to understand that “Adept” and “Master” are titles within these respective lineages. They do not necessarily indicate anything beyond that.)

July 22ndThorn Coyle

T. Thorn Coyle is a magic worker, mystic, musician, and author of “Evolutionary Witchcraft” and “Kissing the Limitless.” She teaches internationally. Her blog can be found at yezida.livejournal.com or http://www.thorncoyle.com/musings.html.

July 23rdSannion

H. Jeremiah Lewis, also known by his religious name Sannion, is a Greco-Egyptian polytheist who has been actively honoring the gods since around 1993. He has lived all over the country, including Alaska, Nevada, New York, Montana, Washington and Oregon (where he currently resides), and has worked the standard assortment of odd jobs that every aspiring author needs to get by with. Mr. Lewis divides his time between an insanely intense religious practice, writing, research, helping to organize the activities of Neos Alexandria, and directing the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. There isn’t much time for anything else.

July 24thPeg Aloi

Peg Aloi is a Pagan and a scholar who works in both the academic and popular arenas. She is a writer on Paganism and the media for Witchvox, is the co-editor with Hanna E. Johnston of the new volume “The New Generation Witches: Teenage Witchcraft in Contemporary Culture” (Ashgate, 2007), and is currently co-authoring a book with Hannah titled “The Celluloid Bough: Cinema in the Wake of the Occult Revival”.

Please give all of them a warm and hospitable welcome, I’m certain they will all contribute something special to The Wild Hunt. The gods and my new DSL service willing, I should be back to my regular posting schedule by July 25th. Make sure to keep things respectful and polite in the comments while I’m gone, the assorted hells hath no fury like a vacationing blogger who has to log in to a WiFi spot in Idaho to engage in some blog moderation.

My recent post on skepticism and pessimism regarding Pagan-Christian dialogue has spurred some thoughtful responses from Pagan and Christian bloggers. First, Erynn Rowan Laurie (author of “Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom”) says that a certain amount of skepticism is only natural in exchanges between Christians and Pagans.

“…an underlying theme of much specifically Christian-Pagan dialogue is a general Christian desire to spread the faith. I know a lot of Christians and they’re good folks and they don’t give me any trouble about being Pagan nor do they try to convert me. But the fact remains that motives in Christian interfaith dialogue often tend to boil down to learning about other faiths so that arguments can be prepared for use in attempts at conversion … Given this attitude, I think it’s only natural and right that Pagans should approach such dialogue with a certain amount of skepticism and even cynicism. I am by no means saying that we should not have these discussions. I do think they’re vitally necessary in reducing inter-religious tensions and fostering understandings between communities. Yet I believe we need to go into these discussions with our eyes open, understanding that there are some very likely ulterior motives in many who would engage with us.”

Meanwhile John Morehead, editor of the book “Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue”, weighs in with his own thoughts on the issue and disagrees with the notion that Christians don’t “get” modern Paganism.

“I respectfully disagree with the sentiments expressed by Chas Clifton in his comments on Strange Onion Peeling. There are Christians who are making a good effort at understanding Paganism, including the aspects he specifically mentions. Therefore, we do “get it,” even though we have a long way to go in our understanding. And we are not attempting to understand just enough of Paganism to combine it with a nicer approach in order to convert people. Yes, we feel an obligation to be obedient to Jesus’ command to “make disciples,” and in so doing share the pathway of Jesus when it is appropriate and desired, but we do not view people as mere objects for evangelism. There is a far broader agenda at work here. To assume otherwise perpetuates the stereotypes we desperately need to move beyond.”

Morehead has suggested holding a “public Pagan-Christian dialogue at an educational institution in the near future” in order to discuss some of these issues and ideally move beyond some of the inherent skepticism found in these dialogues. I think such a move could be a good step forward, depending on the participants involved. For more conversation on this issue, check out the comments section of my original post, and the comments on the Strange Onion Peelings blog.

I’ve positively mentioned the book “Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue” before on this blog, and have actively engaged with Christians involved with the project. While I think that creating better relations between Christianity and the modern Pagan religions is important work, I can also deeply relate to the skepticism and pessimism conveyed by fellow Pagan blogger James R. French concerning the project (and others like it).

“It boils down to the question of what “religious pluralism” really means. From where I sit, it should mean that we acknowledge that many systems of belief are valid. Not that they “contain truth” as [Beyond the Burning Times reviewer Gerald R.] McDermott says. That is a dodge. It sounds something like “well, they’re heathen, but they have some good points.” True pluralism means that each system is valid on its own terms. This is something that Pagans can accord Evangelicals that Evangelicals cannot accord Pagans. It is almost a tautology to say that the only way to gain the soteriological benefit of Christianity is through Christ. A Pagan simply does not wish to gain this benefit. She has no reason to object to others doing so. It’s simply not her Path. An Evangelical cannot, by the very nature of their beliefs, have such an attitude toward Pagans. To do so would redefine what it means to “witness” so drastically that it would not be accepted among most adherents. Hence my pessimism. While part of me is hopeful when I see at least a few Evangelical Christians recognizing that Pagans are humans and not either devil worshippers or morons, I find the prospect that much will come of this fairly slim. The “softer” approach appears too elitist to appeal to most mainstream Evangelical Conservatives. Too “liberal.” Especially in America, where Dominionist eliminationism gets most of the airtime.”

The progressive and open-minded missiology of folks like Matt Stone, John Morehead, John Smulo, Lainie Petersen, and others, while refreshingly different from the hellfire-throwers, are an admittedly tiny minority of the larger global Christian mission. They, sadly, cannot be typified as representing the mainstream of typical Pagan-Christian dialogues. A far larger contingent are still stuck in the same ruts of filtered and impaired communication or outright hostility. In this environment it is all too easy to become cynical and pessimistic concerning truly better relations.

Which isn’t to say that books like “Beyond the Burning Times” aren’t important, they are, but both sides must acknowledge the large hurdles to overcome before we reach something that resembles mutual respect and trust. We need to get to a point where Pagans don’t feel that efforts at dialogue from missional Christians aren’t “an attempt at domination”, and Christians don’t think Pagans are asking them to “give up the centrality of Christ”. Monotheism and polytheism have had throughout history at best an uneasy truce, and at worst, attempts to eradicate the other. It may take decades of “baby steps” before we reach a point of mutual understanding and a general sense of improved relations.