Not a Book Club: Being A Pagan

Monday, March 31, 2014 Posted by

Being a PaganMarch’s book was Being a Pagan: Druids, Wiccans, and Witches Today, edited by Ellen Evert Hopman and Lawrence Bond (Destiny Books, 2001).

The first thing I would say about Being a Pagan is that it very much belongs in a category with Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon. Hopman’s book is a collection of essays profiling various Pagan sub-groups, from Druids to Wiccans to Artists and Pagans in the military. Each interview touches on each individual’s experience regarding their entry into the larger Pagan community, some basic questions about their beliefs, and then follows up a little more on the specifics.

Reading this book, I had a strong experience of needing to remind myself that practitioners are not necessarily historians or anthropologists or experts in what is attestable about their traditions. What they are experts at, however, is their own experience. Having a text that looks at Pagans from the ground up, displaying the diversity of experience and attitudes, is incredibly beneficial.

The one issue with the book is, obviously, that most of the interviews in it are now going on 20 years old. While certainly a lot of what’s in these interviews is still familiar, and while Hopman was lucky enough to interview individuals like Isaac Bonewits, Alexei Kondratiev, and Victor Anderson before their deaths, the material is increasingly old. Our communities are changing. What it looks like now is not necessarily what it looked like in the mid-1990s.

Overall, this book gets a strong recommendation from me as a text we can use to educate ourselves about our communities. I’d encourage reading it along other books that do discuss the empirically known histories of our communities (esp. Hutton’s work about Witchcraft and Druids), and probably Adler’s book as well. Required reading for 101 courses, maybe?

PBP: Getting it Wrong is Important

Friday, March 28, 2014 Posted by

broken-blue-eggThis week has been an interesting one in terms of being reminded of the ways being Pagan in public has changed the way I do the work. I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure to “get things right.”

I’m a founding member of our local ADF grove, and both ADF and White Hawthorn are open and welcoming to curious and interested participants. I’m in a leadership role in our local pan-Pagan networking group. I’ve helped out and supported or local college Pagan group. I’m an irregular contributor to our local RNS affiliate.

Each of those things full of lessons even before taking the people aspect into consideration. I am, for example, a fundamentally disorganized human who struggles with occasionally crippling social anxiety. How exactly am I supposed to network with people again? Deal with the Parks and Recreation department? Remember to put events up on Facebook or update websites?

(The answer for me, incidentally, seems to involve whiteboards, intense effort, patience, and occasionally relying on the kindness and willingness of others to pick things up where I’ve dropped them.)

But the people lessons are bigger. Because doing these things that I’m doing means that sometimes people contact me because they have questions, or unmet needs, and they think that maybe I’m the right guy to help them.

True story: when I was sixteen, I called a Catholic priest in the middle of the night because my mother had admitted she was afraid I was going to go to Hell because I’d left our (Baptist) church to become Pagan, and the most obvious way I could find to make things work for everyone was to find a Christianity that looked kind of like Paganism.

I didn’t mean to wake the man up. I’d assumed I’d get a church office and an answering machine, because the idea that the number in Yellow Pages being a number that rang in somebody’s living space never occurred to me. To Father Brendan‘s credit, he was very kind about the whole thing.

We met for a while, Fr. Brendan and I. He was, as would be expected of a Catholic priest, a smart man, educated, and philosophical. To describe what I was doing with him as catechism isn’t quite right, because he wasn’t teaching me what the Church believed exactly. He would listen, and we would have conversations, and in him I think I got to see the good in the Catholic tradition even if I think my experiences of meeting with him and going to mass also taught me that it wasn’t the right choice for me.

I tell this story because Fr. Brendan’s example has been a tremendous influence on me, despite our differences of faith. He was, to all appearances, fastidious in getting his own faith right, but also in doing right by others. He was a skillful man. I count him among my honored dead.

I’m not a priest in my current primary tradition, but there aren’t many Pagan clergy in my area, and so I sometimes get called on to do things that clergy would traditionally do. When that happens, I want to give the best support or resources or information I can. That’s a given. But more than that, I want to make sure that I’m doing that from a place of integrity and care.

Which is where this week comes in.

Getting it right this week has, among other things, being very clear about my non-clergy status and pointing someone to resources beyond my Grove so that she can make an informed choice about choosing resources and community. It’s involved me considering how best to honestly contextualize the spectrum of “Celtic” Paganisms, which run the gamut from wholly modern or non-Celtic systems that utilize Celtic stories or symbols to various modern Druid practices, to reconstructionist polytheisms without denigrating the methods I disagree with.

It isn’t that I lack the cynicism or bias to want to use these moments to prop up what I do and think. I want my Grove to grow into an actual, functioning church for those Pagans in my community who want or need one. I want ADF to prosper and grow. I want people to know just how much of their “ancient Celtic practice” actually comes out of the 18th-20th Centuries. And yeah, there is a part of me that enjoys feeling authoritative. These parts of me are real, and will probably always be there, no matter what I’m doing.

Seeing and sitting with those parts of me that get it wrong like this (and the fear that’s almost always the motivation behind them) is just as important as doing things right. Sitting with my previous failures — like losing touch with a guy who was trying to re-integrate after prison because I didn’t have the skills or resources to get that interaction right — is just as important as doing things right. These things, as unpleasant and frustrating as they are, remind me that it’s crucial to check just enough of my ego at the door that I can be a good human to whoever comes asking for help or directions or whatever.

I have to be okay with listening to and coexisting things I disagree with, or being wrong, or making dumb mistakes because all of these things are going to happen. I’m going to fall short, or at least feel like I have sometimes, because I can only control my own efforts, intentions, and actions at best. And hey, sometimes those get tangled up, too.

Not everything I do is going to grow my church or change people’s minds or fix the planet, but that doesn’t mean that making mistakes — or even just getting a result that isn’t quite what I wanted — isn’t useful to me, or to the others with whom I interact. Doing my best, and making my best better, and actually helping others practically requires error and unexpected results.

I don’t know what Fr. Brendan would think of all of this. I want to think he’d be pleased I’m trying to be a better human, and that I still care passionately about big ideas, but I wonder if he’d think he got it right or wrong with me.

Something to think about, I guess.

PBP: Filling the Well

Friday, March 21, 2014 Posted by

800px-Burg_Breuberg_BrunnenschachtThere is a concept in certain creative circles called “filling the well.”

Basically, the concept is that individuals have a pool or well of creative energy. Using that pool to make things consumes creativity, while activities that nurture creativity, that inspire, that give you the energy to make new things help to replenish it.

It’s an appealing image, not least because it casts things that give one pleasure as functional, practical things. Forget the joy inherent in going to the zoo and watching the otters bounce and swim and turn things over in their tiny little paw-hands. That’s work, now! It’s a thing you have to do! Go fill the well! Fill it, or be doomed!

This isn’t how wells work at all. You don’t dump a bunch of stuff into a hole in the ground. You dig a hole deep enough that you reach the stuff you want — water, creativity, spirituality — and hope that your system is robust enough to maintain the aquifer. You can’t just dump a bunch of water on a field once in a while and expect the aquifer to be taken care of. Aquifers are big, slow systems, susceptible to pollution, stress, and abuse.

Keeping the well functioning, then, isn’t about chucking in experiences. It’s about maintaining and nurturing a healthy system. Experiences are a part of that, but so is adequate self-care, rest, discipline, practice, etc.

Less bucket, more ecosystem.

My grove celebrated the Spring Equinox last night. It was a good rite, and a delicious potluck. I like the people involved, I enjoyed listening to people talk and joining in conversation. Even now, I’m still enjoying that expansive, chest-full feeling of loving that we get to do this, that there are people who want to do this, that this is a real thing.

Before I got ready for that, though, I spent a lot of the day decluttering my living space. I also renewed my Dedicant Oath (which is a surprisingly serious thing considering how often I choose to communicate with humor) and prayed and made offerings at my shrine. I played with the dogs. I read a book. I ate and cooked.

Today I started a major creative project that I’ve been putting off, spent time at my shrine, then spent the bulk of my day at work feeling like a pinball surrounded by angry bumpers. I came home, ate food with my household, played with dogs, knitted, watched some TV, handled my snake, visited my shrine again, and ate some leftover pie.

Tomorrow I’ll probably take a day off, which means sleeping in, more reading, maybe some games. Maybe some work in spite of it being Saturday. Also, probably some ancestor work, since I specifically make time for that on the weekends.

My well feels pretty full right now. I’m tired, but I’m nourished. Last night helped feed the aquifer, sure, but it’s only part of the overall. I have to respect the whole system, use it wisely, and refrain from coming in and wrecking the place. It’s a process, not an act.

If I want a full well, I need to tend everything around it.

Working Models, Pluralism, and Provability

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 Posted by

Being a PaganI get up quite early — around 4 AM — so that I can work on writing projects before going to my day job. During my morning work time I often take little breaks to make tea, or (if I’m really stumped) take a shower, etc.

This morning, during a tea break, I decided to read one of the interviews in Being a Pagan, which is the book I’m reading in March for my “not a book club” title.

The second interview in the section on Student Pagans is with an MIT graduate with a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience named Marty Hiller, who says something really interesting about the false dilemma between science and religion:

“The thing is, science really doesn’t have very much to say about religious experience. I’ve known a lot of amateur scientists who are rabidly antisupernatural and who believe that science proves they are right, but it’s actually difficult to prove anything beyond a doubt using the scientific method. A negative result to your experiment doesn’t necessarily mean that the thing you are looking for isn’t there; your experiment may simply be faulty. And I don’t really think the energies I work with are ‘supernatural’ anyway; they are part of nature.

“Part of what I have learned from my scientific training is that what we are really doing in science is making models. We don’t actually know what the real world is like through we have some working models. that is an approach that is used widely in science and in engineering. Each model is accurate in certain situations, and it breaks down in other situations. So whatever model you are working with, you need to be aware of the limits of its applicability.

“I have extended that so that religiously I am very much a pluralist. I think that depending on what you are trying to learn about the world or what phenomena you are interested in, the model you use is different. For some aspects of reality a model that involves spirits works better than a model that involves electromagnetic phenomena or mechanical or chemical interactions. Especially when you are talking about consciousness and about subjective experience, mechanistic models of the world just don’t get you very far.”

I think this is an interesting section for a couple of reasons. One, the point about how science is misunderstood — a thing that is true with people who are friendly to it and unfriendly to it — because I think we do get ourselves into a lot of unnecessary arguments because of the way we assign certain roles to science (and religion). The idea of working models is also interesting to me, and makes a lot of sense. I also think this may be another tool in the toolbox with regard to inter-tradition interactions (e.g. “I don’t work in that model, but that doesn’t mean one of us has to be wrong.”)

Obviously I’ll want to sit with this for a while, but I thought I’d share because it jumped out at me pretty strongly, but I’d be curious about the thoughts others have about it.

PBP: Favorites

Friday, March 14, 2014 Posted by

One thing I like about participating in the Pagan Blog Project is that it’s an intentional space where people share ideas in an only very marginally curated space.

This is not to say that I don’t like curated spaces. If anything I prefer them because I don’t have a whole lot of time to devote to coping with the signal-to-noise ratio on the Internet, and my world is much improved by sites like The Wild Hunt that aggregate interesting points of view and present them in a coherent and useful way.

What’s nice about the Pagan Blog Project is that it’s not huge enough to be overwhelming, and that it creates a space in which people are shooting ideas out into the ether and sharing them in a particular space. It’s a nice kind of middle space in which the general topic is one of interest, and I can kind of sift through what shows up and see what’s interesting.

While I think the framework is beneficial to me in terms of keeping me writing on a schedule, the space itself in which that writing happens may be the biggest draw for me.

So. Here are some of my favorite posts so far in 2014:

Weeks 1 & 2 – A
I think about UPG a lot as a concept, not least because it’s an area that’s challenging for me as a relatively scholastic-leaning Pagan in a community that doesn’t always click with that impulse. One thing I do believe is in the validity of one’s experience to oneself — i.e. I’m not going to tell you that what you experienced is wrong — but that I need more than someone else’s experience to support a thing before I should be expected to act on it. In any case, this post was a good reminder that intellectual flexibility is important, and making sure to keep a space for UPG as a laboratory is beneficial to our collective traditions.

Animist Ethics
One of the things that makes modern Paganisms relatively unique is that most traditions do ethics differently from the Abrahamic traditions. This post is a really great example of ethics as a process within the work.

A is for Academic Approach
The academic path gets a hard rap sometimes in the Pagan community. And yet, there are so many ways it can benefit us as a whole and help strengthen our traditions.

Honoring Ancestors in the Traditional Lucumí Way
I don’t know if I just didn’t notice it in previous years, or if there are more participants from the Afro-Diasporic religions this year, but I was incredibly excited to see this kind of contribution. Partly because I’m working on building a more robust ancestor practice of my own, but also because these faiths are hard to access where I live, and I like to learn about other paths so that I can interact more respectfully and effectively with practitioners. Even better, there’s a follow-up post on how to do this work in the context of Espiritismo.

A similar post from a Rootworker in Georgia, both introducing himself and discussing the importance of ancestor work. His practice looks different from the Lucumí one in the prior post, which I think is wonderful and useful information, not least because from the outside it can be easy to lump a group of faiths together and forget the ways in which they are unique.

A is for (Not) Asatru
Speaking of which, this post from an Anglo-Saxon Heathen working in a mixed Kindred is another really great example of how categories that seem to be one thing can be more diverse than outsiders might suspect. She also does a follow-up post on what her path actually looks like for those interested.

A is for Authenticity
But really, paths are diverse. In this case, a Gardenarian points out that the “Wiccan Rede” isn’t universal, and has a go at some of the weird and irritating ways folks prop themselves up as “authentic.” (I’m looking at you, Magic Grandma.)

A is for Ancestors, Before Us They Came
What do we do when our ancestors turn out to have been terrible people? The only thing we can do: be better, and maybe try to remediate some of the harm.

Allergies, ableism, and non-nature centered paths
In my own practice, and working with a local ADF Grove, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these kinds of concerns, and how to do hospitality well for folks who do have health or mobility challenges. We’ve had a lot of successes, a couple of truly frustrating failures, and a lot of learning experiences. In the end, trying to create friendly spaces takes time and effort, and I don’t know if perfect accommodation is always possible. It’s worth it to try, though.

Weeks 3 & 4 – B
B is for Bathing
Bathing was kind of a thing in Ireland.

B is for Brother Fire
Another group of traditions I don’t interact with often enough are the Christian witchcraft traditions and Christopagan traditions. While this is a post specifically about the use of fire, it’s such a marvelous example of how this thing works.

That Baffled Look – Your Paganism Is Showing
I don’t think this flavor of confusion and awkward is limited to conservative areas, though I suppose it’ll be more likely. But yes. These moments? They are a thing.

Bioregional Witchery
When we talk about Pagan religions, a lot of us talk about immanent divinity and a connection to nature and natural rhythms. While certainly there are a great many things that affect the planet as a whole, much of our own experiences and relationships within a natural context are local.

Bringing Yourself
As with anything, it helps to show up.

Weeks 5 & 6 – C
Creation Myths, and Why I Don’t Believe in a Specific One
Many traditions have creation myths, but not every Pagan subscribes to one. And, honestly, that’s probably pretty okay. After all, belief and practice don’t have to emerge from a story about how things are made.

Sometimes, it’s the simplest practices that are the best. The idea of sharing coffee with a favorite deity, thinking about the right vessel for that offering, etc. made me smile.

Communicating with Deity
I think it’s very tempting to lump this kind of communication in with excessive “woo” or to be skeptical. Actually, I think it’s probably very okay to do that, especially. I also think that this kind of experience can be more than valid, and that part of the work is cultivating discernment about it.

I’ve been thinking about open-system divination tools (e.g. augury, haruspicy, etc.) and had entirely forgotten about ceromancy as an option until I saw this post.

Are we that Clueless about Disability?
Another incredibly strong post about disability, inclusion, and intersectionality. Our communities are getting better at this, but we still don’t think about it as often as we should.

Changing the Directions
More good thoughts in the vein of localizing one’s practice. In this case, a practitioner who uses elemental directions makes changes based on bioregional differences, and then notices positive changes in the work.

C is for Cros Bríde
Newspaper Brigid’s Crosses! Such a great idea, and surprisingly attractive if done well. Nice!

I related to this post a lot. As someone who lost patience long ago with deliberate inaccuracy, I pressure myself a lot to be precise in a lot of areas. It’s easy, though, to let that impulse box me in. Granting myself permission to be wrong sometimes was the best thing I ever did.

This is literally the most amazing thing I have ever read on this point. It’s long, but so incredibly worthwhile (and I say this as someone for whom the text in question is irrelevant).

Weeks 7 & 8 – D
On Disney and Callanish Stones
Wonderfully fun little post about the stones in Brave and their real-world counterparts.

D is for Debt, Shamanism, & Issues in Reciprocity
A post on the concept of right relationship with spiritual entities, and the way agreements we (and our forebears) might affect a person’s well-being in the here and now. Outside of my tradition, but a lot of this jives with my experiences with the work I’m doing in general.

D is for Disillusionment
This is the post for all of those moments I have wanted to bury my face in my hands, or shout at somebody that I doubt their commitment to Sparkle Motion, or wonder why things are just so damn difficult no matter how many offerings and prayers I put out.

Discover your local Wheel of the Year
If you’re sensing a theme here — that I’m loving this blogger’s stuff about localizing practice — you’re entirely right.

Weeks 9 & 10 – E
I love this idea — teaching a child the alphabet of her tradition, learning to take omens at offerings, steps toward learning language, etc. — and think this is definitely a Pagan parenting done right moment. Cockles = warmed.

Eclecticism, or: “Actually, I use red brick dust.”
The Southern Hemisphere contingent is absolutely nailing it this year. I have lots of mixed feelings about eclecticism — “eclectic” is something of a slur in recon circles — but this post made me think about exchange v. appropriation v. inspiration, and that’s really fertile ground for me a lot of the time.

There is a lot of crap in the world in the whole abundance/prosperity gospel/law of attraction vein. While I’m not going to tell someone that thinking Good ThoughtsTM won’t improve their life, the concept gets used in some truly gross and brainless ways.

PBP: Ending a Practice

Friday, March 7, 2014 Posted by

il-vento-e-la-candelaA little over two years ago, I began tending Brigid’s flame with a small, gender-inclusive group of Celtic Reconstructionists.

This wasn’t an entirely odd choice — I was friendly with some of the folks involved — but the clincher was a series of serendipitous experiences involving Brigid. The not-Irishness of my overall practice was workable, even if the order used an Irish liturgy.

During the course of this practice I’ve received a lot of comfort and many good lessons, and have a lot of gratitude going on, not just for the kindness of the order I was working with, but for Brigid herself. Not every shift was easy, but every shift was worthwhile. Brigid has been a source of comfort and strength, and I’ve grown to rely, sometimes, on her presence. While I don’t count her as a patron, she has figured into my prayers daily for quite a while.

About three months ago, I began to get the sense that it was time to start moving toward a change in my practice. I wouldn’t necessarily be giving up flametending per se, but my work with Brigid herself was winding down.

This week’s shift was my final one with the order in which I began tending the flame. I made my usual offerings when my shift began. Later on I brought a second offering, this time just to show my gratitude.

I’m not sure where I go from here. I’m making curious overtures in Brigindū’s general direction, but that may not go anywhere. Or, if it does, flametending may not be a practice she wants from me. It may be too that another deity I’m already working with will step forward to fill the gap.

Endings are sad, even when they are right and blessed by the gods. I will do my best to sit with this ending, and learn from it, and trust that when everyone is ready that new things will arise.

Ethics Follow-up

Tuesday, March 4, 2014 Posted by

Last week, I made a post about ethics outside of the Wiccan Rede and Threefold Law. In response, a friend sent me a link to a fascinating episode of Radiolab – The Good Show – which touches on some of the practical issues in play. In particular, the closing section (entitled “One Good Deed Deserves Another“) tells the story of one researcher’s discovery of strategy he calls “Generous Tit for Tat,” which applies to everything from the Prisoner’s Dilemma to situations like the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Note: if you’d rather read something, check out this post about it over at Forbes.)

Basically, it’s looks something like this:

1) Go into the interaction with cooperative intent.
2) Respond in kind — cooperation or aggression — based on how you are treated in each instance.
3) Every so often, choose cooperation over retaliation, even when initially facing aggression.

“Generous Tit for Tat” holds its own against hyper-aggressive algorithms, it maintains harmony with cooperative ones, and tends toward cooperation with mixed ones. In fact, when they put it in an evolutionary simulation (i.e. successful algorithms were allowed to propagate), it won. In fact, its strength lies in its ability to defend itself well, but that it’s willing to try to break a cycle of aggression with a show of goodwill.

It’s not a complete ethical system, or even perfectly tidy. It lacks the hopeful allure of systems that entreat us to be non-retaliatory in the face of slights and aggression. On the other hand, it isn’t inherently aggressive either; it just defends itself when things go off-track, and occasionally tests for the possibility of resuming good relations.

Like, yeah, okay. We fought. Who wants cookies?

To my eye, this looks very compatible with a lot of the ethical systems floating around in Pagandom. It does require one to maybe reevaluate the idea of keeping a moral high ground in the traditional sense, or the idea that one is “above” disagreements, or that ignoring a bully is the best defense. It also requires a lot of thought as to what an appropriate response to an injury or slight looks like. Massive, disproportionate retaliatory strikes? Probably not so much. Ending a fight skillfully? Maybe.

Thoughts? Ideas? I’m curious to hear what others think.

Not a Book Club: March Update

Saturday, March 1, 2014 Posted by

Being a PaganI’ve chosen my book for March: Being a Pagan: Druids, Wiccans, and Witches Today by Ellen Evert Hopman and Lawrence Bond. From the cover:

“Who are the Pagans and what do they stand for? Why would some of the best educated, most materially comfortable generation of Americans look back to mystical traditions many millennia old? During the past few decades, millions of people have embraced ancient philosophies that honor earth and the spiritual power of the individual. Ways of worship from sources as diverse and the pre-Christian Celts, ancient Egypt, and Native American traditions are currently helping their followers find meaning in life. Ellen Evert Hopman’s own spiritual search led her down one of the most ancient religious paths and inspired her to seek out others who had discovered Paganism.

“In this book more than sixty Pagan leaders and teachers describe in their own words what they believe and what they practice. From Margot Adler, NPR reporter and author of Drawing Down the Moon, to Isaac Bonewits, ArchDruid and founder of a modern neo-Druidic organization, those interviewed in this book express the rich diversity of modern Paganism. Hopman’s insightful questions draw on her own sixteen years of experience as a Pagan and Druid and result in fascinating profiles that illuminate the modern Pagan revival. With coauthor Lawrence Bond, she examines the influence of Paganism on society — and society’s influence on Paganism — with particular attention to how pagans address such issues as parenting, organized religion, and politics. Being a Pagan unites many Pagan voices in a panoramic view of one of today’s most dynamic spiritual movements.”

Feel free to read along if you’re interested, and discuss when I post my review in early April!

Not a Book Club: Weaving Memory

Friday, February 28, 2014 Posted by

weaving memoryFebruary’s book was Laura Patsouris’ Weaving Memory: A Guide to Honoring the Ancestors (Asphodel Press, 2011).

Weaving Memory is a short, basic guidebook to beginning an ancestor practice. It’s organized into three sections: The Dead (basics on what ancestor practice is and how to get started), The Work (more in-depth info on some specific practices), and Other Voices (containing some essays from other practitioners). Patsouris’ intention is to present as much information as possible in as neutral and inclusive a way as possible, including Christians and other monotheists, though her backgrounds in Afro-Carribbean spirituality and Heathen practice are strongly evident in places.

The order of the chapters in the first two sections strikes me as a little bit random — I’m not sure why accessing familial lines comes before ancestor altars, for example — but given that this book is not written in a workbook style, and is short enough to be read in a couple of sittings, this isn’t as much of a problem as it could be for individuals with a reasonably strong background in practical spirituality. Rather than give lots of specifics which might vary by culture or individual, Patsouris gives a general survey of the territory and gives the reader space to experiment and craft the practice to his or her own needs.

This is, I think, where Weaving Memory may be a difficult text for some. Some readers — especially those new to their paths — may want more in-depth instructions, which isn’t possible (or desirable) in a work intended to be an inclusive survey. Newer folks may also find the jumps of topic in the second section troublesome as well. Some readers may be startled or uncomfortable with some of the material since Patsouris works within traditions that do sometimes include the use of blood and animals. And, while the intention with Weaving Memory is for it to be useful to as many people as possible, it’s still very much a product of its cultures of origin. This is less a bug than a feature, but readers would be wise not to assume that ancestor reverence only manifests in the ways Patsouris describes.

Overall, I think Weaving Memory does an admirable job of presenting the very basics of a very big, often culturally specific topic. I don’t think this is a book for spiritual beginners — folks will want solid fundamentals in meditation, grounding, centering, etc. and have a sense of what their paths are about before engaging — but it fills a much-needed niche for intermediate and advanced practitioners able to assess which bits fit into their work.

PBP: Ethics Beyond the Intersection of Non-Harm and Return

Friday, February 28, 2014 Posted by

Ethics VennEarlier this week, while attending a gathering of my town’s local college Pagan group, I ran headfirst into a concept I hadn’t seen in a while: the Threefold Law.

Or, more precisely, that the idea that threefold return is a universal belief among Pagans, immutable and factual, and practices that do not appear to take it into account are naturally deviant, scary, and wrong.

This came up as I was sharing the book I was reading — Weaving Memory — and mentioned that some of the material touched on vengeance, and how to call one’s ancestors down on an enemy in extraordinary circumstances. The response was immediate: surprise and maybe a little bit of shock. Didn’t the author know better? Isn’t this a bad idea?

In retrospect, I’m dissatisfied with my somewhat stumbly explanation that some paths have different ideas about how morality and ethics work, and that the author comes from two traditions (Northern Tradition Paganism and Santeria) in which neither animal sacrifice nor hitting back are necessarily frowned upon. I’ve been thinking about this since, wondering how I could have better contextualized the issue.

I’m still not sure I’m nailing it.

Our contemporary Western concept of spiritual retribution for bad acts probably owes just as much to the Apostle Paul’s letters to the churches in Galatia (which were mainly composed of converts from the local Pagan traditions!) as it does to the the Eastern idea of Karma as repackaged via Theosophy, the Transcendentalists, 1960’s counterculture, the New Age movement, etc., as well as via the growth of Hindu and Buddhist communities in North America and Europe.

The idea is simple: do ill (or good!) to others, and the same will come to you. What goes around comes around. You get what you give.

This isn’t quite the same thing as an ethic of reciprocity (i.e. “Golden Rule”-type maxims, which appear in a great many cultures, both modern and in antiquity), which Wicca has in its Rede. They’re separate but adjacent ideas: the Rede is the instruction, and looks like the sort of behavior John Stewart Mill would approve of, while the Threefold Law is a postulated law of cause and effect that resembles operant conditioning writ large. Attitudes about whether the Threefold Law is an impersonal natural effect or divine reward/retribution seem to vary.

Its popularity in Wicca and beyond probably has more to do with Buckland than Gardener — who was never, as far as I’m aware, quite as explicit about it as later authors, though Wiccan lines descending from him and Doreen Valiente seem to hold a belief that good returns good and vice versa — which means the Threefold Law in its popular form is probably about as old as A Hard Day’s Night. And, just like the Beatles, it’s quite popular, but not everyone (or every Wiccan) is into it.

For example, while the Threefold Law is frequently compared to Karma, it’s important to remember that it’s not the same thing. The ideas of good and evil as we generally understand them here in the West aren’t necessarily universal. In Buddhism, for example, the focus is on whether an action is skillful or unskillful. Karma in some Buddhist traditions is less of a cosmic sledge/carrot factory as it is a belief that you are what you do; that the extent to which one is skillful (or unskillful) in practicing Dharma will affect the extent to which one suffers, but it doesn’t necessarily affect other causes and conditions (e.g. disease, the weather). Meanwhile, other Buddhist traditions, as well as some Hindu traditions, believe that Karma affects the circumstances of one’s birth life-to-life, as well as causes and conditions throughout each life. The manner in which this happens, as well as the extent, and varies by tradition.

Basically, there are some schools of thought in which having your house destroyed by a tornado is the result of past action, just as there are others in which such an idea is preposterous. It mostly depends on who you’re talking to.

Elsewhere in the modern Pagan community, there are different ethical principles, and different ways of doing morality. Many modern polytheist traditions eschew specific rules or laws in favor of a virtue ethics model that encourages certain good or useful qualities.

There is no specific prohibition on lying in ADF’s shared tradition, for example, but doing so might be a violation of the virtue of Integrity, as might the telling of an incomplete or half-truth. However, there may also be a time when lying or omission might be the best course of action; the old moral paradox about whether to lie to the Nazis about having someone in the attic is less about lying and more about congruence.

In her essay The Truth Against the World: Ethics and Model Celtic Paganism, Erynn Rowan Laurie describes other ways the question of ethics can be approached, this time in a Celtic Reconstructionist context. The Celtic language-speaking peoples tended to be legalistic, and some of their laws and social values have come down to us in the lore, and we as moderns can study and adapt these to create working community standards and codes of ethics.

Which brings me to another point: in the Classical world, ethics and morality did not necessarily come from religion, per se. While they overlapped, ethics was more properly the domain of philosophy than faith. While not a Pagan organization per se, a virtue model combined with philosophy is how Nova Roma answers the question of ethics and morality while balancing it with civic religion.

Northern Tradition religions combine a virtue model with the idea that our actions shape our destiny. Honorable living increases one’s Hamingja (Luck) and Maegen (Vital Essence) — a belief which is, coincidentally, very similar to a view in Santeria — and one’s actions can affect not only individual Wyrd, but that of one’s community.

I suppose, reading over this again, that simply describing other ways of approaching the issue of what constitutes right action, and what happens when we do bad/good things may not be satisfying to someone with set ideas about the effects of our actions on our environment.

It may help that in none of these models are actions consequence-free. We don’t do what we do in a vacuum, and mundane cause and effect comes for us all. Whether or not we believe a response from the Gods, or changes in destiny, or a Karmic effect is also a factor varies by tradition. While we may each see the issue through our own lens, I’d argue that imposing that lens on the world is less useful than looking at the differences in how we approach the question and accepting that some variation will occur.

After all, if the Threefold Law really is a thing, wouldn’t that breed a lot more tolerance and understanding?