|IPVBM 2: The Value of Information and Knowledge
||[Jun. 20th, 2010|05:22 pm]
Yesterday, my students in Religion 101 (an introduction to world religions course) impressed me with a very perceptive question. We had discussed Hinduism, watched the animated film Hanuman, talked all about bhakti and the basics of advaita vedanta, what an avatara actually is and some of the myths that organize that system of theology, as well as things like lingam puja and kirtan, the different major textual groupings found in Hindu literature, and how the ancient Vedic religion is of an Indo-European linguistic/cultural lineage. They seemed to be enjoying this a lot, and then one of them asked, "So, do Hindus know all this stuff?" I smiled at the question and said, "No, probably not."|
I then told them the story of my first interaction with the Hindu Student Council at the university I was teaching at last semester, and how after showing up for one of their weekly darshan meetings, they asked me if I'd give them a lecture. When I expressed some reservation at this, being both new and a non-Hindu, several of the group's members replied, "We just do this because we learned it from our parents; you actually understand it because you've studied it."
My students in the Religion 101 class further made me happy by then concluding the following, all on their own, without any prompting: "Well, in that sense, Hindus are not that different than people of any religion. How many Christians really understand their religion, or have studied the bible, or know the history of it?" It's true...and it's lamentable.
And this is something that is as true of paganism, in many cases, as it is of any other religion.
Now, on the whole, I would say that pagans are often more "educated" about their own religion than people in many other religions tend to be (with the possible exception of many Jewish people I've met, including many who consider themselves secular but who know more about their religion than people from most other religions I've encountered). They certainly (though not always) understand a bit of the why behind the what of their religious tradition's rituals and practices, even if the factual history and development of the practices are unknown to them.
But, paganism as a religion of experience and a religion of practice emphasizes these things above all. It is more important to do a ritual on Samain than it is to know the exact cultural history of the holiday, or the meaning and etymology of its name, or be able to name all of the medieval Irish texts in which the setting of Samain plays a significant role. (Though it would be nice if people could name at least one...!) It is also more important to experience the reality of the sacredness of the earth, or the presence of land-spirits, or the enduring influence of one's ancestors, or the fleeting visions and momentary epiphanies of the gods, than to be able to provide a theological explanation of any of these. (Though moving from the apprehension of that experience to its coherent articulation is the first step to theology.) Just as experience itself is usually not sufficient for learning, and reflection must follow it, so too is theological reflection an eventual reality for all deep spiritual practices. And though a great deal can be gained by doing something, understanding where that "something" comes from often has the knock-on effect of improving one's performance of it, as well as appreciating the subtleties of it in a way that "just doing" often does not, and in many cases cannot.
It is to be noted, admitted happily, and accepted that the theological process is secondary to the experiential process. Yet, often this fundamental experiential and practical orientation in paganism gets used to justify a sort of theological and scholastic laziness. Just because experience and practice are more important doesn't mean that theology and research are not important.
People may be wondering how this might manifest itself in day-to-day situations. I've heard, on more than one occasion, "You're too much in your head, you need to feel with your heart in this situation." On the whole, it is true: people in the modern U.S. are, like many Westerners, often more the nonconsensual audience to a Wagnerian opera of thought, when in fact we should be paying closer attention to our bodies and the messages they give us (often quite overtly, if only we'd pay attention), as well as the less-vocal but important and powerful pull of the heart, the emotions, and the subtle nudges of our own spirit. But, one of the functions of the mind and its critical judgments is to make a call of a different sort, a definitive and reasoned one in ideal circumstances: "This is ridiculous and I'm not interested in it"; "This makes no sense to me"; "I detect some bullshit here." In my own experience, it's very rare that the mind makes a judgment like that if the body, the heart and the soul are not in some way feeling and trending in the same direction. Whenever someone in a position of any religious authority (from a priest right down to a doorperson at a ritual) requests or requires one to turn off their critical faculties, or to not question, or to ignore whatever it is the mind might be trying to communicate, I'm personally inclined to be rather suspicious...And yet I've often been told that one of the goals of many forms of modern pagan practice is to put us in touch with our intuition, and what is suspicion if not a kind of intuition that can in fact be decisive in making things go well, or in some cases in saving one's life? What if one's intuition is screaming "Get out of this place NOW or it will suck!"? I've found myself in a few cases pressured by others to ignore those sorts of intuitions...and often, money is changing hands in the process. But, there doesn't always have to be a concrete monetary or material gain involved on the part of one person trying to get another to lower their critical judgments in a religious context. The simple request (or sometimes demand) to "put faith" in someone or something in a spiritual setting can often open the door to any number of infringements on the authenticity and individuality of one's own spiritual experience, if not greater abuses of the sanctity of one's own person on a variety of levels.
I also freely admit that some of us are just wired for conversation, for storytelling, for theological argument, for bookishness and a fascination with the particularities of history and literature and archaeology, as well as many other fields which can shed light on one's practice of paganism (or, indeed, any religion). We often find ourselves in situations where if something does not prove to be intellectually stimulating, then it will not prove to sustain our interests, nor lead to an enchantment of one's spirit and an exhilaration in one's body. I'm personally not as interesting in many religious rituals or ideas or deities if I can't grasp and get into the individual story (or history...a connection which is not incidental!) involved in it. I fully claim this bias, and make no apologies for it; but, as I've tried to make clear in these posts recently, paganism as a religion, as well as theology as a religious process, should both be based in one's own experience, and in my own case, my predilection for certain things has shaped my experiences and the ways in which I process them.
How else, then, does this play out in more benign, but nonetheless noticeable and annoying, ways? How about the idea that many people who are pagan, as well as lots of aspiring (and self-announced) mystics like to bandy about: namely, that the divine is "all one," as is everything else in existence? While it may sound nice and even appealing, sometimes this gets used as a justification for not paying attention to the particulars in a given situation. "It's all one" becomes a platitude that permits intellectual laziness, and in many cases even a lack of respect. There are lots of forms of worldwide mystical practice throughout history that are not monistic in their focus; and even where monistic elements seem to crop up in particular pagan traditions (particularly in the ancient world), emanationism--as found in neoplatonism as well as kabbalistic practices and elsewhere--is not exactly monism either, and it is a rather lax parroting of ideas from Buddhist practice that assumes these things mean that "all is one." (I'm reminded of the first two heresies in the four heresies of Dzogchen Buddhist practice: all is one; and all is separate.) This is a wider trend, though, which is found in many other religions, but it is particularly noticeable in paganism and modern magical, occult, and polytheist practices: the statement of a theological or philosophical position (usually understood as a "Truth") without having had an experience of it or a direct gnosis (which, however direct, is still contingent and contextual) in which such ideas often originate.
There is a shopworn--but, note, neither useless nor less true--cliché that, no matter how many times it is repeated, never loses its relevance, in my experience: "those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it." We've seen this play out in horrific ways in the last ten years in the U.S. in particular, with some of the attempts by particular political factions to recreate the Founding Fathers of the U.S. in their own image, for example. Acts of remembrance on the part of religious organizations have often been useful in politics over the last decade or two as well. The history of modern paganism and many modern occult groups is, at most, a century and a half old, which is comparatively not a lot of history, and thus far easier to grasp with a decent and devoted amount of research. And yet, some of the same problems keep coming up with new groups, new books, and new ideas in paganism that are as true and relevant and pernicious now as they ever have been: invented "grandmother tales" and claims to ancient lineage and authenticity which cannot be substantiated by anything other than (often oath-bound) claims of secret oral tradition, or in some cases semi-substantiated divine revelation (which rarely occurs without a concurrent claim of or jockeying for special and exclusive authoritative status).
The people who are most insistent upon such claims and the privileges that accompany them are often the most threatened by those who have the "book smarts" (and, note, that term is never said as a compliment, it is always used in a derogatory fashion) to possibly prove that these claims are baseless, fraudulent, and deceptive. The presence of, and the information known by, such well-informed people should not be a threat, but instead a resource, and an encouragement to claim one's own creativity and ingenuity rather than resting on some overblown claims to exclusive authority. It is a far more impressive--in my opinion--thing to say "Look what I've made, inspired by these ancient sources and this modern philosopher and that film" than it is to say that one is the selected grand master of the secret chiefs of XYZ lineage. All one has to do is be a passive vessel for something done exactly that way for thousands of years in order to be such a "grand master." And, as a reconstructionist, I'm always aware of the fact that religions must change or die, and that the truths that were relevant for a thousand years ago will not necessarily be relevant now. So, I'd prefer an honest innovator--even if their innovations are not to my own tastes--to a fraudulent self-proclaimed tradition-bearer.
One of the other claims of many modern forms of paganism and magical practice is that it aims toward a more holistic and integrated person, who is healthy in body, mind, and spirit. And often, "mind" gets the short end of the stick. (And so does "body" a bit too often, to be honest.) When different types of meditation practice focus on clearing the mind, this is often mistaken for an idea that "thoughts are the enemy." The "monkey mind" of several schools of Buddhist meditation is not necessarily mind itself or thought itself, but instead things like mental anxiety, the inability to think clearly due to overload and anxiety, or getting lost in thought or worry or other useless mental processes rather than focusing on experience and presence. But, when a thought process is fully utilized and followed through, when one is in control of one's thoughts and they are an accurate medium for understanding one's experience and for proceeding to interact with the world, there is nothing more useful. If this kind of training for the mind methodologically is not a goal of one's personal development practices within spirituality, then the holism proclaimed by the proponents of a particular spiritual practice are not really being holistic.
The human faculty of reason, developed verbal language, and all of the things which thought has lead to--both positive and negative--is something that has been valued for several thousand years across many religious traditions. It has often been overvalued, which is certainly true, but if one's efforts in improving other human faculties are not half-hearted, then there is no problem in also developing one's mental abilities. It is also often assumed that there is a kind of progression from "mere information" to knowledge, and from knowledge to wisdom. (Though people like Alan Moore and others, both occultists and scientists, would not agree with this devaluation of information...nor do I, but let's leave that interesting discussion aside at present.) If that is true, then wisdom is the goal and the superior quality. But, it must start somewhere, and that "somewhere" is information. Information comes in many different forms, including direct experience, or hearing a particular platitude and finding it pleasing. How, then, does information become knowledge and wisdom? Through refinement, through reflection, through discernment...In other words, through thought processes, which eventually lead to further refinement. One of the perennial metaphors for this kind of process is the "mead of inspiration" or some other intoxicating beverage. What all of these beverages have in common is that they are produced by the biological chemical reaction called fermentation. It is similarly a fermentation of information and eventually knowledge which yields the spirits (in both the alcoholic and supernatural sense) of wisdom. This process of going from sense experience (information) to mind (knowledge) to spirit (wisdom) cannot usually jump the middle step. The mediating function of mind, mental processes, interpretation, and understanding is utterly dependent upon one's intellectual faculties and their good working. Without the requisite wisdom that begins in direct information and experience, the most profound theological and philosophical truths are only platitudes.
While a surfeit of information is not necessarily something to be encouraged (for one can only take in so much...and what is taken in must be recalled in order for it to be useful), keeping one's mind active and learning about one's religious tradition is, therefore, a very useful thing. An individual ritual action is something arrived at only after an unbelievably complex journey of trial and error, experimentation and reflection, direct experience and philosophical rumination, and finding out the particularities of this can only enhance one's own practice of such ritual actions. The use of certain words in preference to others in spoken ritual rubrics, hymns, wisdom texts, and spells conveys a world of meaning that is only known if the fuller cultural, linguistic, and religious context is known and appreciated. While "truth" and "peace" are things that a lot of religions like and attempt to promote, the cosmic and supernatural significance of these terms within an Irish context, for example (fír, síd) is inestimable if one does not understand that context from which the significance derives. Every tradition has its own power words and loaded terms, and locating and researching them is an excellent way to further enliven one's practices.
Like all things involved with the worlds of spirits, the fermentation of information and knowledge into wisdom is not assured and not always predictable--one person who knows a great deal may not be wise, while another who knows little may be incredibly wise. But, the more effectively it is possible for one to taken in information--which is to say, to have experiences of any kind--the more likely it is that the information thus taken in will become useful knowledge; and the more that knowledge can be refined and fermented through the interpretive methods and disciplines one knows and the reflective catalysts which one may have been trained to use, may eventually become tested, spiritual (and spirited) wisdom.
Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and very often, the repetition is not in the triumphs of history, but in its errors. Knowing one's own spiritual history, both personally and within one's tradition of practice, allows one to gain a share in all the triumphs of the past, while also avoiding all its pitfalls. Understanding where things come from and how they were developed and what they have meant throughout time allows one to enter into that story when one performs the same practices. Myth is not a closed book that can only be accessed in old volumes on a library shelf, it is a continuous and unfolding story that is taking place now as much as in Homer and Hesiod, Plutarch and Pancrates, and anyone else, including YOU WHO ARE READING THIS! But, it does help to know what parts of the story have happened already..."Foreshadowing" as a literary technique has always been seen as a useful and artistic touch, for those who are able to perceive it, and how are we to perceive it if we have not read the earlier chapters of the story--our story--which we are living right now?