Archive for the Paganism Category

Modern Greek Pagans

Posted in Ethics, Paganism, Theurgy on June 20, 2013 by Patrick

They don’t like the term Pagan, apparently, but this is an interesting (and kind of infuriating, in places) article on modern neopagan movements in Greece, from the BBC.  It’s occasionally confused and confusing (they don’t pray to the gods, but they want to build temples to pray in . . . ).  The reporter takes a fairly neutral tone; the “experts” don’t.  Take, for example, Peter Jones, co-founder of Friends of the Classics, who blithely states that these people are “kooky” because “Values and virtues are entirely meaningless in ancient terms.”

This is one of the stupidest things I have ever read.  If it came from someone who was ignorant of the classics, it might be forgivable, but this is someone who claims to be a “friend” of the classics.  In this one statement, he has swept aside the entirety of ancient philosophy, most of it concerned with how to live a good life by developing ἀρετή, meaning “excellence” or “virtue.”  I cannot fathom what sort of hideous stupidity would cause one to say that “values and virtues are entirely meaningless in ancient terms.”  I cannot even imagine a context in which that might not be an asinine thing to say.  The only thing I can imagine is someone with an axe to grind and a willingness to lie and distort the classics of which he claims to be the friend.  With friends like that, who needs enemies?

I should probably do a post on reconstructionist pagans and why I’m not one at some point, shouldn’t I?

Ethics (1/3): Deontological Ethics

Posted in Ethics, Magical Systems, Paganism on June 20, 2013 by Patrick

The first ethical system I wish to address is the Deontological position, or what we might call “rules” morality. (I am using ethics and morality interchangeably in these posts, although there are those who make a sometimes-useful distinction between them.)

Those who subscribe to this moral system devise a system of rules, deriving their powers from some authority (gods, God, pure reason) that will define their duties and prohibitions. The prototypical example is, of course, the Ten Commandments, which offer ten basic rules for how to live: each is quite specific, and tries to be as clear as it can, as if they were legal contracts. For example:

“Thou shalt not commit adultery.”

Clear as a bell. Of course, we run into a slight issue here: define your terms. Is it adultery if my spouse knows about it and condones it? It is adultery if my spouse abuses and degrades me? Is it adultery if my spouse leaves me but won’t grant me a divorce? And so on. You can find vast reams of scholarship about what is and is not acceptable according to such laws. A huge slice of Muslim and Judaic philosophy is just that: defining terms in order to make the commandments clear. Christianity rather less so, but Christianity is no less deontological: it just has a rather simpler rule.

36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

And yet, look at the hither and thither that goes into defining who your neighbor is or isn’t, what it means to love the Lord with all your heart, and so on. People claim to uphold this rule who picket funerals: there’s clearly a heck of a lot of wiggle room. (A lot more people uphold this rule who are kind, generous, and Christlike, so — it’s not a bad rule.)

We run into another problem when we try to define rules. For one thing, how many do we need? For another, how can we define a rule that covers all possible situations? We can’t. A favorite technique of philosophy professors is to give their students situations, scenarios, in which these rules come into conflict, so that in trying to resolve that conflict students will find the underlying rules that govern their unexamined moral intuitions. This can be a very disorienting exercise. I remember in college, one young woman started crying when she realized that two of her moral rules were in direct conflict.

There’s another, logical problem. Where does the authority that defines these rules come from? Many religions Deontologists say “God.” Then we can ask, “If God breaks His own rule, is he then morally bad?” If they say “yes,” then that implies that moral rule comes from a higher authority than God. If they say “no,” that means that the moral rule is essentially arbitrary: God could just as well have said “Thou shalt commit adultery” as “thou shalt not.” Neither is a palatable position for most theists.

Not all deontologists are theists, though. Kant tries to establish a set of moral rules based on reason. You can go look up the results if you like reading translated German. The boiled-down version is this commandment: An act is moral if you could rationally will it to become a general rule. So, if I give someone twenty bucks, I could rationally will that everyone give money to the poor, so that act is right. If I stab someone in the nose, I could not rationally will that everyone start stabbing people in the nose, or I’d get stabbed in the nose! We run into a situation, though, where defining the act determines its morality. If I define homosexuality as having sex with only the same sex, then that act is wrong by this rule, because I cannot rationally will that everyone engage only in homosexual activity, or the species would die out. On the other hand, I cannot rationally will that we make homosexuality illegal or even think ill of it, because in doing so society will miss out on many contributions (think Allen Turing, Walt Whitman, um, me). And heterosexuality is also wrong, because I can’t rationally will that everyone only have sex with the opposite gender, ’cause I don’t want to be forced into what would essentially be a coercive relationship!

We see Deontology in magic when we see prohibitions. “Never curse anyone!” Okay, that’s good advice, especially for a beginner in magic, because curses are difficult, dangerous, and unpleasant to do — but never? What about if they’re hurting someone and it’s the only way to stop them? Can we curse a serial killer so that they get caught faster? Or we see a rule like “Never evoke a Goetic demon!” Again, good advice: dangerous, almost always overkill, and almost always unnecessary because just as powerful and less dangerous options are available. But . . . never? I have to confess that Buer did me a solid. Never work with the dead; it’s necromancy! Um, there are a lot of Tantric practitioners and other traditional paths that would disagree with that.

We also see it when we see “always.” “Always banish!” “Always work in a circle!” My favorite: “always move clockwise in the circle!” Well — why? If I invoke a God, I should end by telling it to bugger off please. How does that work? And I know quite a few successful root doctors who never step into a magical circle.

Often these magical rules assert the authority of tradition, even if that tradition is just sort of made up out of nothing.

Obviously, I am not sympathetic to this ethical approach, even though it dominates a lot of our culture’s thinking about morality. The logical problems with it are just too dire for me to leap over, and while it appeals to think that there is a set formula of rules that we can cling to, I just don’t think there are. I think there are reasons, whys, and hows, and whens. But “always” and “never” make me look for loopholes.

Ethics and Magic

Posted in Ethics, Magical Systems, Paganism on June 15, 2013 by Patrick

Donald Michael Kraig writes a thorough analysis of the Wiccan rede, comparing it in his conclusion to the Tantric concept of karma. He points out that literally following the rede would be practically impossible, and he asks:

So what do you think? Is it time to abandon the Wiccan Rede and Three-Fold Law as unobtainable and unrealistic goals?

I don’t accept the Wiccan rede as the basis for my ethical system, and I agree with 90% of what DMK writs in this post. But . . .

I can quibble a bit with some of his reasoning (I love me my quibbles). There is the assumption here that the “right” reading of the rede is the literal. He doesn’t say that, and I doubt that he intends to assume it, but it’s a warrant of his argument that “literal” reading is correct reading. Of course, the fallacy of literal reading is the very problem of fundamentalism. In reality, there’s no such thing as literal reading: all texts require interpretation. Even recipes require some interpretation. So when a Christian or a Muslim or a Jew says “the scripture says this in plain language” I always have to tilt my head a bit.

I have heard readings of the rede that do not run into the problem of over-literalism, such as “an it harm none, do as you will” means “If you look at an action, and it harms no one, and you want to do it, go for it. If, however, it harms someone, you need to think about it quite a bit more.” This reading is not stretching the text or trying to “get around it”: after all, the rede doesn’t say “An it harms none, don’t do it.” One could argue, quite rightly, that reading it as if it does is actually misreading it: it’s not a prohibition or a commandment. It’s a rede.

As for me, I’m not Wiccan. And I think DMK is absolutely 100% right when he writes:

One of the challenges of these traditions is that in some instances they are not thoroughly considered. An individual tradition may leave out large swathes of concepts and limit themselves to small sections of reality. There is often the worship of deities, the practice of magick, divination, and healing, the celebration of festivals and holidays, but little else. As a result, for many people their spiritual tradition is merely a part-time practice rather than a way of living. (I wouldn’t limit this to Pagans, either.)

So how do we consider ethics? In my next three posts, I will discuss three ethical approaches and how they can be adopted — or not — by magical practitioners.

Pagan Prayer

Posted in Paganism, Speculation, Techniques, Theurgy on June 1, 2013 by Patrick

Jason Miller recently had a clever and thorough post on the debate between those who think that fictional beings are the same as gods, or can be used the same way in magic.  He writes:

We not only do not currently know for sure the nature of what we deal with, but we currently do not have the capacity to know for sure the nature of what we deal with. Therefore every operating theory, including the ones above, might be wrong. Keep this in mind whether you are doing traditional work or experimenting.

I was thinking of that post today while I was going for a walk. Unlike Jason, I am a pagan — specifically a Theurgist [ETA: This was a bit of sloppy reading on my part, as Jason doesn’t say he’s not a pagan, only that his blog isn’t a pagan blog].  Often, when I go for a walk, I like to pray.  So I got out of my car at the forest preserve, headed into the woods, and thought “Okay, now, whom shall I pray to today?”

I had to laugh at myself.  That’s not a question most people ask, being monotheists.  I finally decided I wanted to be a little edgy, and pray to Ares, a god not often prayed to in ancient times.

Then, I had a second question: “How shall I pray today?”

Of course, there’s the traditional sort of address a god by name kind of thing, and then talk to them.  “Oh, Hermes, hear my prayer.  If ever I have burned sweet scents to you or praised your name in writing or made offering to you at a crossroad, hear my prayer, for you are able. . . . ” and so on.  Very traditional, kind of formulaic, but effective.  Wouldn’t work with Ares, though, because it’d be something like “Oh, Ares, hear my prayer.  If ever I have largely ignored you . . . ”

Then there’s contemplation.  Build up an image of the god, carry it with you, and just contemplate it without words, or maybe just repeating the names of the god.

Then there’s one of my new favorites: the elenchus.  I’m pretty sure this prayer isn’t at all traditional, because I made it up, but it’s kind of awesome.  You begin by contemplating the god, and then you present a problem to the god, and imagine what question that god would ask you to get to the heart of the problem.  This is, without some serious magical oomph, “just pretend,” not a real invocation.  But it can be startling the sorts of insights you receive.  Just don’t fall into the mistake of asking the god questions: he or she will ask the questions, thank you very much.

So I thought I’d give the elenchus a try to Ares.  So I contemplated his image until I felt his presence and said, “I’m a little uncomfortable praying to you because I know the ancients kind of — well, loathed you.”  “Why do you think they hated a god?  Wouldn’t that be suicidal?”  “I think they had to recognize your power, as a god of force and violence, but they didn’t have to approve of the violence.”  “And did their disapproval of violence lead them to eschew it?”  “Not at all.  So maybe they weren’t loathing you, but their own hypocrisy.” And so on.

I had my chaos magic phase, as did everyone in the ’90s, and I learned a lot of valuable techniques.  But I also tried like everyone to invoke Spock, and I’ll tell you something: there’s no there there.  Spock is just an image, a facade, and maybe with enough practice and work you could get a god to inhabit that image — but why bother?  Hermes is real.  The work has been done.

And so, at the end of my elenchus, I felt like something had been accomplished.  No, I don’t think I spoke to the god or that he spoke to me, other than in the broadest sense.  I’m not going to write down our conversation as a new Scripture of Ares.  But I felt something there, something enlivening and powering my contemplation, that just isn’t present if I imagine a similar conversation with a fictional being.  And perhaps that’s just me, or perhaps it’s the god.  I’m not sure it’s evidence of anything, other than how I best work.  But I do feel closer to understanding that troublesome god, and coming closer to the gods is about eighty percent of the work of theurgy.