Tags: last lecture series

goddess and god

Ret-Conning Your Beliefs

I ran into another "hard polytheist" arguing that the ancient Norse were hard polytheists. There are several problems with this argument.

First of all we don't know what "the ancient Norse" believed. We have precious little of their mythology much less their theology or philosophy. So no one can claim authoritatively what they believed exactly.

Secondly, this claim is based on the assumption that the ancient Norse were literalists. And nothing more. The Hindu sages, and the Greek and Roman philosophers have left us documents where they discuss less literal ideas about their deities. There is no reason to assume that the ancient Norse had a less robust diversity of philosophical or theological positions.

Thirdly, the ancient Norse were a people, not an authoritarian cult, or a school of philosophy. The chance of all of them holding the same beliefs is very slim. I firmly believe that atheists and fundamental literalists have existed along with the full spectrum of philosophical positions throughout history. People really don't just accept what they are told, as a general rule. Well some of them do. But some of them think about it and come up with their own ideas. (You really should read "The Cheese and the Worms" by Carlo Ginzburg. It says nothing about the ancient Norse. It is about the peculiar beliefs of a common millar in the 1500s. I feel it demonstrates how complicated religious belief is.)

Personally I have a problem with the absolute duality of the hard polytheist position. They tend to phrase things as either the gods exist as distinct persons, or they don't really exist. Personally I think it is more complicated than that. I believe that all of reality is the manifestation of the unitary divine. Which means I am "just a facet" of the divine. But I am quite obviously a real individual person as well, so I don't see the problem with gods being facets of the larger divine as well as individual persons. It's just not a problem for me.

If you want to talk about your beliefs that is fine with me. But don't go defining what I believe. That is my prerogative. And what does it really matter what is going on in my head while we are in ritual? The only thing that should concern other people is what I do, not what I think. My thoughts neither pick your pocket nor break your leg (to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson).
Braided Wheel Tradition

What is the Braided Wheel Tradition?

[I wrote this article after one of my students was asked to teach our tradition at a pagan temple. ]

What is the Braided Wheel Tradition?

Braided Wheel is a Wiccan tradition.  That means we are part of the community of religious traditions that practice in the way popularized by Gerald Gardner.

Who is Gerald Gardner?

Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884–1964) was a retired English civil servant, an author, and an amateur anthropologist.

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How is Braided Wheel Different from Other Wiccan Traditions?

Braided Wheel is an offshoot of the Blue Star Tradition.  We practice a fairly common form of American eclectic Wicca similar to most American traditions.  The Blue Star influence is mostly visible in the round altar in the center of the circle, as opposed to the rectangular altars at the side of the circle used in British Traditional Wicca.  The round altar has radial symmetry and re-enforces the circular symbolism of the Wheel of the Year and the general emphasis in Wicca on egalitarianism and cyclical time.

Braided Wheel places the athame in the south with fire, and the wand in the east with air.  This is one of the few disputed issue between Wiccan traditions, with some traditions associating the athame with air and the wand with fire.  Our tradition also resulted in Braided Wheel using the wand for the Great Rite instead of the athame.  If you think about it, having sex with a knife is just a bad idea.  Some people would argue that the symbolism of the chalice and the blade represents the union of both creative and destructive forces.  But the Great Rite is supposed to be the act of creation.  In the Braided Wheel tradition we complete the balance by using the athame and the pentacle to bless the cakes, so the wine represents life and the cakes represent death.

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Transgender Issues.

Wicca has a strong emphasis on feminine/masculine duality which has alienated some LGBT people.  There is no denying that most life on earth uses two sexes to reproduce and this is a handy and intuitive symbolism.  But there is a place for sacred transgender in Wicca.  As with the Ardhanārīśvara in Hinduism, and the Yin/Yang of Taoism, the Wiccan feminine/masculine duality represents a greater unity.  Transgender individuals perform the sacred function of reminding us of this greater unity.  The existence of feminine and masculine archetypes does not limit individuals to those roles, we are all ultimately seeking wholeness which transcends duality.

As a practical matter the Braided Wheel tradition does not restrict what roles a practitioner may take based on sex or gender identity.   And we have an alternative Great Rite that uses two chalices and two wands to symbolize that both participants both give and receive.
reject reality

"A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism" by John Michael Greer

The first chapter is free as a preview on Goodreads

First Thoughts

I just started reading this book, and it is what people say it is. The author is a long-time Druid and it is a very scholarly discussion about the differences between monotheistic beliefs about the nature of god and polytheistic beliefs about the nature of gods.

What he says is the truth but it is not the whole truth.

He doesn't seem to be aware of the Pagan Monotheism of classical Rome and Greece. Personally I think the recent spate of books on the subject misunderstand classical pagan monotheism.

But there is evidence that classical pagans did believe that their many gods were "representatives" of a much higher universal God. Part of the understanding the Romans had with the Jews (that gave the Jews a waiver from honoring the gods of Rome) was the idea that the Jews worshiped the one highest God, who was also the God over the Roman gods. The Romans agreed that the Jews' one God was the same universal God their gods reported to, that all gods reported to.

This is a sort of syncretism that Greer and many modern polytheist reject. Which is OK. It doesn't bother me, or God.

The distinction he makes between the characteristics of the monotheistic God and the polytheistic gods are valid.

Personally, I believe that there are two distinct ways that human beings experience divinity. One is as the universal, omniscient, ubiquitous, omnipotent, all loving presence that wants nothing and does not intervene in our lives. And the second is as the more limited powerful beings, persons, that Greer describes. The many gods and goddesses and spirits.
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Braided Wheel Tradition

What Do You Want From Religion?

On a recent long drive a friend of mine kept me company by asking me lots of questions about my beliefs. One of the questions she asked me was "What do you want from religion?". I don't think anyone ever asked me that question before. I have spent most of my life studying what religion is, what purpose it serves in people's lives, what purpose it serves in society, how it is structured, how it functions, what it does, what I get out of it. But I never asked myself what I want from it.

But after a brief consideration I answered that what I want from religion is meaning and connection. For me these two things work on a variety of levels.

One of the things I love about Wicca is the way it makes meaning. Polytheism and mythology give meaning to all aspects of life. The turning of the seasons are stories. The winter solstice, for instance, is not just the low point of the sun it is death and rebirth. It is an old man dieing and a young woman giving birth. Imbolc around here isn't just the first weekend in February it is people gathering together in the cold of winter to give thanks for fire and warmth, the light of inspiration in us all, and hope for the growing light of spring. History is what happened to specific people in specific times, Mythology is what happens to everyone all the time. The stories we tell ourselves are how we make meaning of our lives. I love being in a religion with so many stories I can relate to.

Those stories also help me feel connected to the world around me. The seasons become relatable. Atheists may scoff that gods are just anthropomorphic projections, but anthropomorphic projection is how we relate to the world. To see yourself in another is empathy. We know the gods don't really look like us. And we have always known that. Gods just appear to look like us because that is easier for us to understand. For example in the Bhagavad-gita before Krishna reveals his true form to Arjuna he gives Arjuna special eyes with which to see Him and even then Arjuna is overwhelmed by the vision. And in Greek mythology Semele the mortal woman who demanded to see the true form of Zeus was reduced to ashes by the sight. The lore is quite clear that humans can not look upon the true form of the divine without being destroyed. So the divine shows us forms we can bear to see. Gods appear to us in human form so we can relate to them.

But the story of Krishna and Arjuna also brings up another way religion builds connections. Krishna's true form is the basis of everything. The ultimate form of the divine is the unifying principle of the cosmos. Seeing ourselves in others is one way to connect but seeing the one unified divine in all is another way. Namaste, I bow to the divine in you. The idea that there is one divine force underlying all the cosmos is not unique to Hinduism. I found it also in the classical Roman polytheism of Marcus Aurelius. I believe that this universal form of the divine is one of the two ways that all human beings can directly experience the presence of the divine in their lives. I believe that the idea exists in all cultures because all people are capable of having the experience and when they do they express it in the language of their culture.

The third way religion helps us feel connected is by bringing people together for a shared purpose. Certainly people can come together for nonreligious purposes. But meaning gets tied up in mythology very easily. Our shared stories bind us together. Our shared experiences bind us together. Our shared values bind us together. Gathering together for a shared purpose, to tell our shared stories, is the social manifestation of religion. The bonds we form with people build our network of social support and create communities.

So that is what I want out of religion. I want stories and rituals that make life meaningful and help me feel connected to other people and the world. And I want a community that shares my values and shares the same stories.

What do you want from your religion?

Love as an application of the Threefold Law

"Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal Health" by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz (M.D.), Kathryn Bowers explores what animals can teach us about the human body and mind. We are not that different from other animals, many of the problems that we consider uniquely human occur in other animals. Seeing ourselves embedded in the web of life is natural to the Wiccan world view. All life comes from the same source we are all children of the Earth and Sky.

One of the topics they discuss is self harming. Most people have heard of "cutters", people who cut themselves. Self harm occurs in other animals too. Birds pluck their feathers out, dogs lick themselves bare, and horses bite themselves. One of the treatments for "flank-biting" stallions is to put chickens or cats in their stalls. Just having other animals there keeps them from hurting themselves.

Self harm is a comforting activity for those who do it. It is self treatment for emotional distress. It makes them feel better for a little while. Which makes me wonder if self harm in humans is caused by feelings of alienation and loneliness.

I live alone (without any other humans) but I have two cats. The other day as I was lavishing affection on one of my cats. It occurred to me that human beings need to feel love for other living beings. When I was cuddling my cat I could feel my self filling up with love that I was pouring out to her. Which is how I usually feel when I feel love for someone. The feeling of love fills me up and overflows toward the beloved. It feels wonderful to love that way. That isn't a kind of love one feels for possessions. It is love for other living beings. And I think we need to feel that way to stay healthy. We need to love others. We are healthier when we love others.

That is how I think of the Threefold Law. What we do comes back to us. In order to feel an emotion we fill up with that emotion. What we feel affects us first. Love heals us and makes us happy. The more we love others happier and healthier we feel.

Of course the type of love I'm talking about is compassionate love. The kind of love that makes you feel generous and giving, it flows outward. Not the desire and coveting we sometimes call love. If you look at someone or something and feel a sucking need to own them or consume them, that is not love that is desire. The problem with loving other humans is that we want them to love us back. We desire them. With other kinds of animals we have lower expectations for reciprocation. We don't expect them to remember our birthday or buy us presents. I know I'm just happy that my cats want to stay near me and have me pet them.
goddess and god

Inherent Worth

I was listening to The Scholar's Circle on Ithaca Radio this morning and she was interviewing two men, Dennis Davis and Robin Nixon, who have set out to advocate for mentally ill homeless people in Los Angeles. (http://goalfoundation.org/)(https://www.facebook.com/GoalFoundationLosAngeles) They specialize in helping mentally ill women but they have a lot of experience with how hard it is to get help for people and they don't turn anyone down.

It made me think about what we mean by saying a person has worth. How much worth does a schizophrenic person starving to death on the side of the road have? Not seeing someone who is suffering right in front of you is rejecting their inherent worth. One can believe that a person has inherent worth while still knowing that the person's actions are destructive or even "evil".

The key thing Denis and Robin mentioned is that we tend to judge people for their actions. If we see a homeless person on the street who is clearly an alcoholic we decide that their suffering is the result of their actions and therefor not our problem. Dennis and Robin argued that people who make bad decisions do so because they are already suffering and therefor still deserve our compassion and help. Well, I think Dennis and Robin believe that all people have inherent worth, they were just trying to explain why a person's actions should not stop us from helping them. They are choosing to help people who are incapable of helping themselves, or even understanding their own suffering. The program highlights the problem of requiring people who are mentally ill to help themselves. People who are ill can't always help themselves, that is what being ill does to people.

I've been reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and he argues that people who behave badly do so because they are unable to see the right path and they should be still be treated with justice and compassion. That is also an argument for the inherent worth of all people.

I think people who make bad choices are mentally or spiritually ill. Seeing their inherent worth does not mean being OK with their bad actions it means trying to help them instead of hating them. I'm not always up to the task, but that is my illness. We can't always do the thing we know is right. Which brings us around to the discussion of "sin". I know that the fundamentalist Christian definition of sin is "violation of God's laws", but I think it is more useful to define sin as the failure to live up to one's own standards of what is right and good. I know that I am not always the best person I could be and that makes me sad. But I have to live with myself and just try again each day. I'm not perfect and that has to be OK. Which brings us back to inherent worth. None of us is perfect but that doesn't mean we don't have value.
Braided Wheel Tradition

On Marriage: Part 3, Marriage and Family

On Marriage
by Sheherazahde

Part 3 Marriage and Family

What is really going on when people get married?

We talk about “two people becoming one” but that is not literally true. Marriage clearly has something to do with sex and having children, but sterile people are allowed to get married, so it's not just about having kids.

Marriage is about family. When two people get married they talk about having “in laws” people who are now related to them by law not blood. (Further evidence of marriage as a legal, not religious, event.) When you get married you legally become part of another family. Traditionally the woman was legally transferred from her father's family to her husband's family. This used to be very important legally. The head of a family had legal control over family members. It is less so now. Modern married couples hold duel family membership. This social union of families becomes a physical union in children. When you have children you bind your family to the family of your partner.

The only other ceremony that welcomes unrelated members into a family is adoption. (No one ever talks about adoption as a religious matter.) Marriage is a sort of adoption. The parent “in-laws” adopt the spouse of their child to be their child “in-law”. Although, a spouse is a special kind of relative, family members are not usually allowed to have sex with each other. The fiction of couples being one person sort of covers that. But mostly we bow to the necessity, of putting our need to form couples to reproduce and care for children, before logical consistency.

We say that marriage is about love and certainly love is important. One should love one's children, one's parents, and one's siblings. But parents don't just dump their children if they feel like it. Being a family means sticking together even when you don't feel like it. We say “until death do we part” because you are related to your family until they die no matter how you feel about them. When you have a child with someone you are related to that person for the life of that child and that child's children. Even if you get a divorce you are still related.

Even today, when extended families are not economic units, marriage is still a matter for the whole family. When you get married you are binding your parents and siblings to another family. We have decided that people can make that decision without the consent of the rest of the family but it is still polite to at least inform them and let them get to know these strangers they are now related to. Your family is you first network of social support, make sure you keep them informed about your life.

Even though extended families are no longer economic units a “nuclear” family is an economic unit. Spouses depend on each other for support in maintaining a household and raising their children. Before you marry someone be sure you want to be tied to them economically. Life is dangerous. We are safer if we have a “buddy” to watch our back and help us if we get hurt. Before you get married make sure your spouse is the kind of person you can count on to be there when things get tough.

Traditionally parents paid for wedding parties because they could afford to and the young couple couldn't. If that describes you, and your parents agree, then they are the hosts of the party and they get to decide what to do. (And be grateful that you get to pick your spouse.) If you can afford to pay for your own wedding party then you are the host can decide what to do.

What religious tradition you get married in should be your decision. Just keep in mind that if your parents don't approve you might have to pay for it yourself. If you are willing to go through a sham ceremony so your parents will pay for the party you should probably reconsider your priorities.

Whatever you do, remember that marrying someone is making them part of your family. You can't disown a family member just because you get tired of them, your feeling change, or you change. If you have children with this person you are related to them no matter what the law says.
Braided Wheel Tradition

On Marriage: Part 2, Wiccan Marriage

On Marriage
by Sheherazahde

Part 2 Wiccan Marriage

Since the courts don't care what we do in a marriage ceremony I turned my mind to what marriage means in our religion.

The Great Rite is central to Wiccan sophiology. Our view of the cosmos is based on the union and balance of masculine and feminine energies.

The simplest Wiccan marriage ceremony can be the invocation of the personal deities of the couple followed by the public declaration of consent to be married before the gods and human community. A more elaborate ceremony for adepts could involve Drawing Down and marriage of the gods, with a full Great Rite (rather than the more common Symbolic Great Rite).

The basic spiritual principle involved is joining the couple the way the Goddess and God are joined in a greater whole.

There are also lots of folk practices that have come to be associated with Wiccan marriage.
Jumping a broom.
Joining two candle flames.
Walking around a fire.
Binding the hands of the couple together as a “handfasting”. (A popular misreading of tradition has led some people to believe that handfasting is a trial one-year non-binding marriage. This is incorrect.)
Wiccans tend to go for silver rings instead of gold. Moon metal instead of sun metal. But gold has the advantage of being “incorruptible”, it resists tarnishing.

White dresses for brides began as an ostentatious display of wealth, not an advertisement of virginity. Traditionally people got married in their best clothes. Whatever that meant for them. Buying special clothes for the occasion is a display of wealth. White is a very difficult color to keep clean and only a very wealthy person could afford to spend money on clothes they would only wear once. Color coordinated bridesmaids are also a display of wealth. Many Wiccans are choosing to simply “dress up” for the occasion. I recommend returning to this old tradition and wearing clothing you will have more use for.

A wedding is a ceremony of a life stage transition. It is a matter of interest for all your friends and family. It is right and proper that they should be invited to participate (or at least be informed) and it should be celebrated with a party.

Most of the folk traditions around modern marriage have to do with the party. Parties are important. Parties are how communities bond. People like to compete to put on the most extravagant parties. But it made more sense to spend a lot of money on weddings when weddings were primarily financial transactions that had financial benefits. When you get married it is right and proper that you should host the biggest party that you can afford without going into debt. But if you can't afford a big party don't have a big party. A small get together with immediate family a few close friends is just as good.
Braided Wheel Tradition

On Marriage: Part 1, Legal Marriage

On Marriage
by Sheherazahde

Part 1 Legal Marriage

When I first started practicing Wicca people would ask me if it was a “real religion”. I didn't know how to answer the question. Who decides if a religion is “real”. When I asked people what they meant by “real religion” they usually asked if Wiccans could perform weddings.

Who can perform weddings is determined at the state and local level in the USA. Some states have very strict requirements others don't. My friends in Colorado tell me they don't have to have any officiant at all, couples can marry themselves. If you want to get married please check the laws in your state. Most of my information is for New York State, (but not New York City which has stricter rules).

To get legally married a couple must usually purchase a “marriage license” from a city or county court. A license authorizes one to do something. In this case it gives the couple permission to get married, usually within a stated time period from the issuing of the license. (A marriage license can expire and some licenses have a twenty-four hour waiting period between purchasing the license and performing the ceremony.) The couple usually must take the license to someone authorized by their city, county, or state to perform the “marriage ceremony”. This usually includes “officers of the court” it could be anyone from the mayor to the clerk issuing the license. Some licenses are only good for ceremonies performed in their jurisdiction so make sure you can get married where you want to have the ceremony. Because most religions have some form of marriage ceremony the government usually recognizes religious officiants to perform the ceremony. The officiant, if there is one, must sign the “marriage certificate” certifying that the ceremony was performed at the time and place stated. The certificate is also signed by the couple, and their witnesses, then returned to the office that issued it to be kept on record. In New York State there is a hefty fine for officiants who fail to file the certificate in a timely manner.

Marriages by ship Captains at sea were recognized for two reasons 1) ship journeys used to take a long time 2) Captains were the highest legal authorities on board. New York State does not recognize ship Captains as officiants. However New York State has a general policy that if a couple thinks that an officiant is authorized, the marriage is legal. This protects the couple getting married, even if their officiant is a deliberate fraud their marriage is still legal.

Allowing someone other than an officer of the court to sign a marriage certificate is no different than authorizing a mechanic to certify that a repair has been completed on a mechanical violation ticket. The court really doesn't care who does the ceremony they just want a responsible person to see that it was done

This procedure is the result of thousands of years of legal precedent. It goes back to Roman and Germanic law regarding marriage. There are traditionally four conditions that must be satisfied for a couple to be married: 1) They must declare that they consent to be married, 2) there must be witnesses to this declaration, 3) they must have sex, 4) they must live together. Failure to consummate the wedding used to be grounds for annulment (annulment means the marriage never took place). So called “common law” marriages are based on the fulfillment of these four conditions. The act of publicly presenting yourself as married is counted as the declaration before witnesses. There are only a few states that still recognize common law marriages. In most states you are not legally married unless you have completed a marriage certificate.

New York State at least has no official position on what a marriage ceremony must involve. The Civil Ceremony simply requires that the couple publicly consent to be married. (“Do you take this woman...”). Anything else (rings. candles, kisses, “I now pronounce you...”) is irrelevant. A couple is married when they publicly declare they are, and fill out the paperwork. Because the government does not want to get involved in religion there are no requirements of what must happen in a religious marriage ceremony. The policy of the court is that: if the people involved believe that a couple is married, then it does not matter what the ceremony is. Going through with a religious wedding ceremony implies consent to be married.

There are some people who claim that marriage is a religious issue and the government should get out of it and leave it to the churches. There is little basis for this position. The Catholic Church did not recognize marriage at all until they had become a major source of civil authority. And marriage is the only “sacrament” that is not performed by the priest but by the people getting married. The priest witnesses the sacrament and performs a mass. (Although in the Eastern Orthodox church it is performed by the priest).

Marriage is a civil issue regulated by the courts because it involves property and other rights that are frequently brought before the courts. In our current time when people are free to set up house together without getting married they are finding that they don't have the legal protections that legally married people have. If you and your unmarried partner contribute equally to your expenses but only one of you has your name on the property you might be in real trouble if your partner dies. If you do any research on the rights denied, and the problems faced, by same sex-couples who cannot get married you will see how important legal marriage is. (List of 1,138 Federal Rights, Benefits, and Privileges of Marriage)

So called “civil unions” and “domestic partnerships” are doing more harm to traditional marriage than same-sex marriages ever could. There are more straight couples choosing these “alternatives” than there are same-sex couples. But “civil unions” and “domestic partnerships” do not offer the same rights and protections as traditional marriage. Including the right to have a court oversee your divorce settlement. If you don't get legally married you can't get legally divorced.
goddess and god

Roman Religion

We've been reading the "Meditations" of Marcus Aurelius in book group. It is very illuminating. There are a lot of ideas that we attribute Eastern religion that were present in Stoic philosophy. Romans generally agreed about the gods, but they belonged to competing philosophical schools about how to live one's life. This made me think that for Romans "philosophy" was closer to what we call "religion". I had a suspicion that Romans didn't have an word equivalent to our word "religion". I started reading "The Christians as the Romans Saw Them" by Robert Wilken to see if there was support for this in the way Romans talked about Christians. There are quotes about "religion", such as Cicero's "most distinguished citizens safeguard religion by the good administration of the state and safeguard the wise conduct of religion". I asked a friend who is knowledgeable about Classical Rome and she wasn't sure. She did say that the Romans had a lot of words for specific religious practices.

From Wikipedia I get:Collapse )

The association of "religion" with gods goes back to the Roman meaning of the word "religio" but not the meaning of religion as a belief system. Basically to the Romans "religio" meant practices not beliefs.

Reading "Meditations" of Marcus Aurelius I've come to think that to Romans of his time "philosophy" is closer to the definition of religion as a system of belief. In Marcus Aurelius' time a philosopher was someone who lived in accord with a set of beliefs, not merely someone who studied ideas.

In "The Christians as the Romans Saw Them" so far, Pliny was mostly concerned with "clubs" or voluntary associations, and superstition. The emperor was concerned that such organizations cause political unrest. There are two kinds of voluntary associations discussed: hetaeria - "clubs" mutual interest societies, and eranus - "benefit societies" formed by poor people for mutual aid. In Pliny's time Christians were rumored to engage in human sacrifice, cannibalism, and orgies (descriptions of supposed Christian practices are quite lurid). There is an irony to Christians being accused of the same things they now accuse others of. Pliny found no evidence of actual crimes, but had them executed for forming illegal "clubs" (hetaeria) and practicing a foreign cult (superstitio). As the Romans believed that "religio" safeguarded the state, both superstitio and atheism threatened the well being of the state, that is the sort of thing you get when you mix government and religion. To prove that they had renounced their cult Pliny asked "ex-Christians" to offer wine and incense to the Roman gods. Those who refused to were executed. He seems to have introduced that particular test of faith.

It is interesting that even at this early stage Christians asked others "only believe, do not ask questions". And there was a lot of turn-over in the Christian cult. Not everyone who joined chose to stay.

I will continue reading and commenting. And I think I need to read "Bowling Alone" next to think some more about the role of "clubs" in society.