Archive for March, 2013

The New Age

Posted in Magical Systems on March 29, 2013 by Patrick

I remember the first time I heard the clever little saying, “New Age rhymes with sewage.”  I thought, “yeah, that’s so apt, because not only does it allow me to feel superior to others’ beliefs, but it also encapsulates my beliefs about the world in a clever almost-rhyme.”

The New Age movement is an outgrowth of the New Thought movement of the late 19th century.  New Thought taught, among many other things we’ll get to in a moment, that our thoughts created our reality, and that sickness was the result of wrong-thinking.  If you thought negative thoughts, you would manifest negative reality.

This kind of new thought is intimately tied to the philosophies of the Theosophists, and we postmodern occultists owe a debt to this position, as well as that of the newer New Age movement.

If I had to summarize New Age off the top of my head, doing no sort of fieldwork or anything, I suppose I’d put it this way.  New Agers believe a constellation of the following beliefs, more or less:

1.  The world is entering a new historical period, in which people will become in some way more spiritual and less material.

2.  Thoughts create our reality, and you choose — consciously or unconsciously — the reality you wish to live in by thinking certain thoughts.

3.  God is more of an impersonal but benevolent force.

4.  Reincarnation.

5.  Aliens?  Angels?  New evolution of humanity?  Any number or cluster of such things insofar as it appeals to the individual.

For the most part, I have no particular objection to any of this, other than perhaps the lack of critical thinking sometimes evidenced in the last one, which seems to sweep whole shelves of nonsense into the shopping cart indiscriminately.  But really, even that — when you think about it, it’s just saying “Here is a set of metaphors or symbols that explain something to me.”  Seen that way, belief in aliens is no more odd than belief in gods or belief in economic systems.  I don’t have to buy it to respect your right to plop down your quarter.

The only serious beef I have with New Agers is the idea that we choose our own reality to such an extent that we are therefore responsible for bad stuff that happens to us.  Most people, when pressed, will admit that this kind of blaming the victim lacks compassion and back away from it, but others will simply bite the philosophical bullet, saying “they must have done something terrible in a past life.”  I once heard someone suggest that the only reason an acquaintance came down with cancer is that she wasn’t “manifesting love” in her life.

That is some low stuff right there.  It’s a pernicious idea, but not necessarily embodied in the teaching itself.  After all, we often do experience misfortune because we have made choices that led to it.  That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily culpable for that misfortune or somehow deserving of it.  And it can help to endure misfortune to see it as a lesson, but that doesn’t mean that we should lecture people about the lessons they should be learning.

The problem arises when people say such things as “it must be her karma” to mean “thank god it’s not mine!”  That’s fleeing from human compassion into religion, and it’s just as bad as when any other religious person does it.  That tendency to find a reason why it couldn’t happen to you is where the real problem lies.

So New Age might rhyme with lots of stuff, but the snooty superiority of looking down upon it because it doesn’t match my particular standards of critical thinking . . . well, I’m just out of the energy for that sort of thing.  Yes, there can be seriously pernicious philosophical implications to an unsophisticated reading of some of these ideas; that’s true of pretty much everything from Capitalism to Christianity, my own Paganism very much included.  I see no reason to single out the New Age movement, and really, can’t we just find a better rhyme?


In Praise of Bunnies

Posted in Weird on March 25, 2013 by Patrick

It’s nearly Easter, which is the holiday when Christians the world over do something or another with a rabbit that I don’t really understand.  Hats, too, are involved, yes?  Anyway.  I get Friday off and mom gives me candy.  Can’t hate on the chocolate bunny.

And there’s another kind of bunny I’m kind of tired of hating on.  The fluffy bunny.

If you’re unaware, a fluffy bunny is a derogatory term for people who are not serious about their paganism.  These are people into it for the fashion, the festivals, the social disapproval, the edginess.

The fluffy bunny is a silly figure.  He has gods from several pantheons on his altar.  He mixes and matches traditions.  He’s more interested in magic than faith.  He’s . . .

. . . a typical pagan of the first century CE, actually.  He might worship Isis along with Zeus, mix Hebrew godnames into his prayers, and sometimes just make some stuff up because it sounds good.  All of that is just sort of part of the daily life of a pagan in late antiquity.

So can we stop hating on the poor bunny?  In some ways, the fluffy bunny has a greater claim to historical accuracy — of a sort — than the strict reconstructionist.

And the bunny has a point.  The reconstructionist (and I’m not hating on them either, even though they sometimes hate on me) tries to drag into a postmodern era a religious tradition built on a culture that no longer exists.  Attempts to reconcile Hellenistic calendars illustrate the difficulty of doing this, and the whole concept of the Religio Romana as the Romans practiced it requires a state religion of a state that no longer exists (and the Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest, is named Francis and just got a new hat!).

I’m convinced that if we’re going to return to the worship of these gods, we need to do it in a way that recognizes the situation we’re in: a global culture of diverse subcultures, a fluid sense of identity, and more diversity of thought, not to mention tolerance, than ever in the history of the world.

There’s a lot to be said for the study of our ancestors and the historical methods and aims of paganism, but at the same time we are alive and building a living tradition.  Just as chopsticks are part of my place settings as often as forks are, so I must recognize that neither my culture nor my religion is monolithic.

Of course there are fluffy bunnies who really are quite ridiculous, basing their faith off of TV shows or whatnot.  Most of them are kids.  Kids will from time to time be a little silly; that’s the only upside that I recall of being a kid.  So why blame them?  They’ll grow out of it into respectable adult pagans, or they will grow out of paganism entirely and become atheists or Buddhists or Christians or something.  Or they won’t grow out of it and they’ll grow up into eccentric adults.  No matter what, it’s no skin off my wiggly little nose.

What I Do Believe (3/3) — Humanity

Posted in I do believe, Uncategorized on March 18, 2013 by Patrick

I regard myself as a sort of postmodern Neoplatonist (::blam!:: that’s the sound of heads exploding as they try to reconcile the two — just roll with it, man, just roll with it).  As such, I also admire the Stoics, who are some of the wisest and most practical philosophers ever to apply stylus to tablet.  One of my favorites — because, like me, he found his own authority troubling and often woke up feeling like nothing he did was ever good enough — is Marcus Aurelius, who in between being emperor of Rome and leading campaigns against northern barbarians (who were, of course, my ancestors) also wrote a few notes to himself about how to be a good person.  I read one passage over and over regularly, often on first waking up.  It goes like this:

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.

I believe, then — or try to — in humanity.  I believe that we are good and trying our best, more or less.  We do stupid things out of ignorance, and often those stupid things are just horrid, absolutely and undeniably reprehensible.  But that fact that we can be repulsed by them is evidence that we’re not bad.  We’re made to work together.

I think the good can often be described as the prosocial.  I don’t mean that we have to get along with everyone or hang out with lots of people and go to lots of parties.  For that matter, we can lock ourselves in our house all winter, much as I have this season, and still be prosocial.  I just mean that the good is what allows us to live together and contribute to each of our welfare.

Society is a non-zero-sum game.  If we learn that, we can create a civilization worthy of the name.  Unfortunately, many people are ignorant, so I have to also believe in the power of education and reason to teach people how to live.

I don’t think that goodness comes from the gods — or rather, it does, but it’s not delivered by them in a little package of thou-shalt-nots.  I get that many religions do believe that, and that’s fine.  But I don’t.  I think we’re human and we must determine the good for ourselves, but that it’s clear that we survive best by being with each other.  And so that’s a place to start looking.

I live in a suburb of a city of six million people.  If you were to take six million monkeys and cram them into the same amount of space, you would very quickly have a bloody soup of monkey fur.  But we manage pretty well.  Yes, there is violence and murder, but really not that much of it.  It’s a miracle that there aren’t more murders, thefts, and so on.

There is an instinct for the good that drives most people, and I think that’s simply to be kind to other people, because we recognize on some level that they are we.

What I Do Believe (2/3): Magic (the Occult)

Posted in I do believe on March 11, 2013 by Patrick

When I say “I believe in magic,” what does that mean?

First, what do I mean by “magic”?  I believe that magic is the causing events to occur through occult means.  By occult, here, I mean hidden.  In other words, you can’t trace back the chain of cause-and-effect as you can with mundane actions.  If I am playing pool and I hit the cue ball to knock the eight ball into the corner pocket, we can trace back the physical forces back through the chain of cause-and-effect.  We can draw force vectors and account for everything by clear phenomena (literally, in the original Greek, “things which appear”).  But if I make a gesture with intent and proper visualization when my opponent is lining up his shot at the eight ball, and he scratches as I intended, we cannot trace back the phenomenal lines of force.  They are hidden, or occult.  This, I believe, is magic (and also the only way I ever manage to win at pool).

So I believe that these occult forces are real.  In other words, the chains of cause-and-effect that govern our lives are not entirely phenomenal — are not entirely visible or physical.  This is the cause of free will, in fact: it’s the indeterminacy that gives rise to our sense of self-agency.  When the addict puts down the crack pipe for the last time and turns his life around, or the middle aged school teacher suddenly decides she’d like to write a novel, that’s magic.  Assuming, of course, that they do it.

Now, I believe there’s a technology to harness these invisible chains of force.  This technology is magic: by manipulating symbols and whatever the underlying stuff of reality is, we can direct these changes.  Because these things are occult, I don’t think we can ever really understand how or why they work.  Our theories are just theories, and while I love mine and can spend long hours polishing it — theory, I’m talking about theory — they’re visible images of invisible things.

That’s why I like the word “occult.”  It’s very precise: “hidden.”  Unfortunately, silly people think it’s the same as “cult,” and look nervous when you say you study it, so I tend to use “esoteric” instead.  But what I mean is “occult.”