|IPVBM 2: "Value" = Underlying Problem / Ideal Solution...?!?
||[Jun. 10th, 2010|09:10 pm]
After having read Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World--And Why Their Differences Matter, I've had a number of ideas in relation to paganism, and this is one of them.
In a recent review of Prothero's book, I praised it for its initial chapter, but questioned its methodological premise, because it seems to be that it's fairly certainly based on Buddhism. Buddhism, which is a practical/experiential, highly philosophical, non-theistic religion, has two interconnected statements that are quite central to many forms of its practice: the Four Noble Truth and the Noble Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths are usually phrased as some variation of the following: 1) All life is suffering; 2) Suffering has a cause; 3) Suffering's cause can be eliminated; 4) The way to eliminate suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. In Prothero's earlier book, Religious Literacy, the question "What are the Four Noble Truth of Buddhism?" appeared on his fifteen-question religious literacy quiz (which only touches on five world religions--Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism). It's, thus, a rather important concept in Prothero's corpus of writings.
On pp. 14-15 of God Is Not One, Prothero outlines his approach to understanding differences in the various world religions he covers into statements that can be summarized with four points: a problem; a solution; a technique; and an exemplar. To take Buddhism as an example, the problem is suffering; the solution is nirvana (understood as "release from suffering"); the technique is the Noble Eightfold Path; and the exemplars are the Buddha, the arhats, the bodhisattvas, etc. He also gives Christianity in extenso as an example, with the problem being sin; the solution is salvation; the technique is "some combination of faith and good works"; and the exemplars are the various saints, etc. (Though, I think to most Christians, the person of Jesus himself would be postulated as the ultimate exemplar, even despite his divine or partially divine status...but that's something else entirely.) He goes on to describe each of the eight religions he covers in a quasi-Taoist manner, as a "Way of ___," with the particular term for each religion being the "solution" to its underlying problem. (Unfortunately, he doesn't always elucidate these particularly clearly within each chapter...) The list he generates for each, found in a very handy list in the table of contents as the chapter headings and subtitles, is as follows:
Islam: The Way of Submission
Christianity: The Way of Salvation
Confucianism: The Way of Propriety
Hinduism: The Way of Devotion
Buddhism: The Way of Awakening
Yoruba Religion: The Way of Connection
Judaism: The Way of Exile and Return
Daoism: The Way of Flourishing
Prothero admits he is unable to talk of every world religion, and so there is much more that could be done. (Will he cover the religions he mentions as being beyond his scope in this book in a future book? Who knows?) In his list of major religions that he cannot cover, Wicca is at least mentioned; but, no other form of neopaganism or ancient paganism is given.
I would suggest, for the purposes of this present entry, that understanding Prothero's phrasing of the question (whether or not it is in some sense sectarian or influenced by an underlying theological premise that may not be appropriate in all circumstances), that we can get a sense of the basic motivating values of a particular tradition by looking at it in terms of how it phrases its underlying problem and then articulates its ideal solution to the problem. The value itself may not be identical with the solution (in simplest terms), but it is often close to it.
So, what about us? What about pagans?
I cannot possibly do justice to the fulness of this question in a blog post, but I'd like to offer at least a few ideas on the matter. And I'd like to start doing so by saying that it might be good to briefly treat Wicca in these terms, even though I'm not a Wiccan and do not speak for Wiccans. (Though, Prothero himself is not an adherent of the eight religions he discusses, and yet feels no aversion to attempting to understand these religions from an insider's perspective...so, why not?) I would like to follow with a specific address of this issue from an Ekklesía Antínoou viewpoint (note, not the Ekklesía Antínoou viewpoint!).
Let's start with Wicca--it would be useful to do so because of Wicca's broad popularity, the visibility of this form of neopaganism within wider culture, and the fact that many people coming into paganism enter it through an initially Wiccan introduction. If we are to distinguish any/all forms of paganism from the religions Prothero does discuss, then we can't really repeat any of the terms he uses above. It is true, Wicca and other forms of modern paganism do have great similarities to the various traditions above, and Prothero's use of "The Way of Connection" for Yoruba Religions is highly appealing, to say the least. Indeed, I'd draw people's attention to any number of incidents, which many of you reading this may have experienced yourselves, of encountering Shinto practitioners, or Hindus following a form of bhakti yogic practice, describing what it is that modern pagans do, and then having them say "So, you're a Hindu, then?" But, what makes us different, apart from which gods we revere, which texts we consider useful to study, and what particular terms and languages we use in worship and theology? A very great deal, I'd suggest.
If "The Way of Connection" is off-limits, no matter how appealing or applicable, then what else can we say about Wicca? "The Way of Harmony with Nature"? I don't think so--that is somewhat close to Prothero's chapter on Taoism; but, I think that particular phrase would be pretty accurate and useful for understanding Shinto, and would be a good way to translate kannagara. So, if you want a "true" nature religion, I don't think Wicca is it (whether it would like to admit it or not). What about "The Way of Reciprocity"? Interesting, and possibly relevant...but, probably more for other types of paganism, both ancient and modern, than for Wicca itself. Reciprocity would be a good way to understand the Greek term charis (or kharis, depending on how you like to transliterate it), which is an underlying concept in Hellenic Polytheism (both now and in the ancient world), as well as Roman, Egyptian, and Celtic polytheistic practices, for starters. Reciprocity probably has a role in many religions that is far greater than may have been previously recognized; but, it's probably the last thing on the mind of most Wiccans. Wiccans, as I've encountered them, do not like the idea of "tit for tat," or for what human relationships to the gods should be, even though it underlies certain concepts that are otherwise deeply held by many Wiccans (including the "law of three" and all of the karmic overtones and undertones it can have).
If I had to come up with something that is pretty unique to Wicca, I'd have to say it is "The Way of Polarity." Whether this appeals to one or not, whether it is how Wiccans would decide to define themselves and their co-religionists or not, I think it's a pretty important concept. It seems to me that a great deal of Wicca, in terms of it being both a "mystery religion" as well as a "fertility religion," is about the divine interplay between the male and female principles of creation, The Goddess and The God, and understanding and embodying those roles in human ritual life, as well as more widely in everyday existence. Men are to become men as fully as they possibly can, but also to realize their interdependence with women; and vice versa...all in order to understand "both aspects" of divine energy and the creative process. The Way of Polarity is the way in which a great deal of magic gets done, and a great deal of theology, ritual, and understanding of the changing round of the "Wheel of the Year" progresses. It is a lack of recognition of this reality of polarity that would be the problem which Wicca can help solve. Thus, polarity is not only a central concern of Wiccan structure--from cosmology to theology to practice--but also, in essence, a defining value within the tradition. It is no wonder, then, that many types of neopaganism that challenge this underlying necessity of polarity end up becoming non-Wiccan, or end up getting rejected by Wicca...and all that can follow from this (to challenging of gender polarity in the positing of third or more genders, doing away with the heteronormative assumptions of this ritually, etc.).
Please understand: this is not a critique of Wicca. Some religions are really good at the things that they do and what they can provide, and Wicca does polarity really well! However, those who are not comfortable with that aspect of it (and it is a deeply structural aspect of it that cannot be edited out, nor oftentimes even tweaked such as to no longer have the implications it does) will probably not be able to get around it, without utterly redefining the tradition in ways that make it no longer Wiccan, strictly speaking. It would be no more appropriate for someone of a pagan bent to stay in Wicca if they are not interested in polarity than it would be for someone to stay in Christianity who is not interested in sin and salvation. (As ever, "there is no ethic to follow in choosing which ethic to follow"!)
How, then, can we understand the Ekklesía Antínoou in a way that is not any of the above, nor would it be confused with any of them? (I realize this is somewhat unfair--we don't have representatives from Gnosticism, or Feri, or Theosophy, or Bon'Po, or Kwakiutl traditional religion, or any number of other religions here, who won't thus get a chance to lay claim to a vocabulary that they prefer in order to attempt to define themselves in contrast to various other traditions...) This is actually much more difficult than it may at first seem, for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, there is a tightrope to walk on the issue of homoeroticism. We are a queer cult, and that signifier comes first in the litany I give when asked to describe what the Ekklesía Antínoou is (a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous, the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and related divine figures). Queerness in theology and other practices is essential to what we do--not simply inclusion of homoeroticism amongst our interests and in our acceptable ethical ideals, but structural queerness and queering...which can extend to the fact that we are syncretists. And yet, I've also suggested over and over again that we're not simply about "coming out theology," which is what far too many queer groups (which usually define themselves as "gay" or possibly GLBT) are about: we must go much further than merely stating "It's O.K. to be gay!" in our theologies and ethical ideals, but this is about as far as it goes on a variety of occasions. So, homoeroticism and queerness must play a role somehow; but, it cannot be the sole defining factor. Radical Faeries, the Minoan Brotherhood, the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, and even the Feri tradition all have a stake in queerness generally; not to mention Dignity, Integrity, the Metropolitan Community Church, and other religions and denominations.
Second, we are a syncretic group, but one that takes its primary cues from Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures. And yet, we're not in any way synonymous with Hellenic Pagans, Roman reconstructionists, or Kemetic reconstructionists (although we're happy to work with and trade ideas with them whenever and wherever possible!). What can be said about their individual traditions might have great relevance to us, and yet we're something different, and not just because we worship Antinous, Divus Hadrianus, Diva Sabina, and a whole raft of other former humans as well as deities like Diana, Hermes, Dionysos, Silvanus, Osiris, Nefertem, and so forth. So, again, something must distinguish us from what these others happen to be doing, no matter how similar what much of what we do may be to what they do.
Third, no matter what may be said about some modern Antinoan devotional groups, or what some people in the ancient world said about Antinous as Soter, we can't phrase what it is we do, what our tradition's "solution" is to its particular "problem" is, and what our underlying value is in utterly exclusivist and personal terms. In other words, we can't say "People need savin' and Antinous is how you get saved!" Not only is this a notion that is one of escapism and (if you like) "pagan docetism" and pagan monotheism, which utterly rejects the worth and goodness of this world for some unpromised and ill-defined afterlife, but it fails to understand what Soter actually means in ancient Greek terms. Someone who was a "Savior" in the past--whether a deity (like Dionysos) or a human (like Hadrian or Ptolemy)--was that they did something for a city that made the lives of its people better during their lives, not after. The Latin Salvator comes ultimately from salus, "health," so a Savior in that sense is one who allows one to be healthier in their life right now. Thus, "salvation" in the old sense is an important issue; but we cannot define the aims of the tradition as being that of salvation through Antinous. Antinous is not THE solution for the underlying problem this tradition posits, even though he may ultimately be involved in the techniques to pursue the solution to that problem.
I've gone through a variety of possibilities in my head on this matter, and I have to say the one I've come around to is the following: the Ekklesía Antínoou is "The Way of Kalokagathia." Now, of course, everyone asks, "What the hell does that mean?" Kalokagathia is a Greek concept meaning "what is beautiful is good." And, while we know this is not the case--how many people can you name off the top of your head who are beautiful but not moral, or how many things can you think of that are in some sense beautiful but are deadly, destructive, or dangerous?--it is a Greek ideal, and one that held a great deal of sway in the ancient world. The way in which Christianity changed the wider opinion on this has no little role for Antinous in its development, because some of the Patristic authors suggested that Antinous was only deified for his beauty, whereas Jesus was ugly and yet the Son of God. This might reinforce the idea that the Ekklesía Antínoou is a "cult of beauty," and thus it may seem to some as if it is yet another group--not unlike the wider popular gay culture--that is obsessed with youth and beauty, but I would say that's a poor and incomplete understanding.
Beauty can be contained in and exhibited by any number of things: from the physical features of a particular person, to certain strains of music, to the contours of a sculpture or the brush-strokes of a painting, the words in a poem, the light and shadow in a photograph, the awesomeness of a mountain range, the sleekness and speed of a jet fighter in flight, or the sublime power in a tsunami or a volcano's eruption. The Pamphobeus antinous spider is said to be the "most beautiful spider," and yet it is also one of the deadliest and most aggressive. The ancient cult of Antinous is known through two primary sources: the visual sources of Antinous' extensive statuary (all of which are works of art in addition to being objects of cultic devotion); and the poetic records of hymns, poems, and other writings by ancient authors like Pancrates, Numenios, and any number of authors unknown to us (as well as those who are known but whose works on Antinous have not survived or are currently unknown). To say that the cult of Antinous is a cult of beauty, then, is not at all a far stretch of the imagination from reality.
But, in thinking about the Latin term beatus, which can mean both "beauty" but also "happy" and "blessedness," we are also on the right track to understanding what can be meant by "what is beautiful is good." What is beautiful is also blessed--but not in the sense that what is not beautiful is somehow cursed (even though that is often seen to be true, in actuality if not in ideal, now and throughout history). The "Beatitudes" are an example of this type of usage; but so too is the idea of John Keats that "a thing of beauty is a joy forever." Whatever it is that is apprehended by our senses (and according to our own tastes) as beautiful is also joyous and a thing of happiness, but also something which gives us an intimation of divinity and the presence of divine realities within it, in this world, as we experience it moment to moment. And thus, the cultivation of these types of experience, and the filling of our lives with beautiful people, beautiful things, beautiful art and words and experiences, is what we are attempting to do in the wider aims of the Ekklesía Antínoou.
And, homoeroticism, of course, plays a HUGE role in this! Who of us has not had that feeling that we are looking upon an image of divine form when we behold a person that excites our attractions? Who of us has not felt Aphrodite Ourania or the Erotes when we have been enraptured in love (or lust, or even just like)? And, no matter what the nature of this experience is, it is a thing of beauty...and therefore, good and desirable and blessed and joyous to behold.
Thus, I'd describe the four-step process outlined by Prothero in the following terms:
1) The problem experienced by many of us is a lack of beauty, and as a result a lack of goodness, and even a perception of evil and ugliness in the world as overwhelming.
2) The solution offered is an experience of beauty and goodness, and of an understanding of beauty as sufficient unto itself as goodness and blessedness and happiness--kalokagathia.
3) One of the techniques to more easily apprehend and appreciate this beauty is through devotion to Antinous, and from widening one's experience from Antinous to the other deities and figures, and through all of them to the wider world, in an ever-unfolding web of beauty and all that follows from it (happiness, blessedness, compassion, enjoyment, and hopefully also health, love, wealth [at least in the sense of fulfillment, rather than necessarily implying material abundance/prosperity], and vitality, but at very least, appreciation of beauty in oneself and others).
4) The exemplars for this are Antinous, Divus Hadrianus, Diva Sabina, and the many Sancti of the Ekklesía Antínoou (here they are again in an IPVBM 2 post!).
While this does not exhaust the full range of what can be said on these matters, it is at least a start.
When I began this particular post, I actually had no idea where it would end up, or what the solution I would generate would be with any degree of certainty. I'm pleasantly surprised, and yet not entirely satisfied, with my answer here, and so I do invite comment, clarification, and suggested revision on these matters. I would reiterate that I'm not the single font of authority on matters pertaining to theology in the Ekklesía Antínoou, I'm merely one of the most vocal on the issue, but I hope at all times to have my voice be joined by others, in discussion and debate, or in solidarity and support. I look forward to hearing your own thoughts soon!
I leave to others what might be the essential values and "solutions" offered by other forms of reconstructionist paganism--though I'd offer (as a possibility) that Celtic Reconstructionism might either be "The Way of Hospitality" (though other traditions might want to claim that equally), or perhaps "The Way of Fír"...but others more central to CR might want to take that topic up for themselves!