Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Next Word On The New American Pagan: Mine

“When people cease to believe in God, remarked G.K. Chesterton slyly, they come to believe not in nothing, but in anything.” Christopher Hitchens, For The Sake Of Argument: Essays & Minority Reports.

Coffee shop at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
It is Hitch who is remarking slyly, here: Chesterton never said this — not so succinctly, at any rate. But the sentiment is Chestertonian enough to qualify (note the canny absence of quotation marks). And I gratefully use it as a helpful entry-point for this post.

“They come to believe . . . in anything.” More particularly than “anything,” I wonder if the Default Setting for human consciousness isn't Paganism.

Paganism has an innate logic, from a pop-psych POV. From birth to late adolescence we see our parents as gods. In benign families the child's consciousness morphs from “How did she KNOW I was going to pilfer that cookie?” to gradually discovering some of the tricks behind this perceived omniscience, to the young-adult motivation to prove oneself not just equal to the parent, but superior.*

Plurality produces a manifold awareness. Even in happy families, children witness their parents in conflict. The gods rage! I displeased them with that third cookie! They rage against me! In FUBAR families the children adopt strategies to become parent to the parent — usually an admixture of deceit, distraction, and recognized emotional supplication. Daddy calms down when I cry and say “I love you!” Again, this happens in healthy families also, albeit with less trauma.

Here we have the basic template for standard modes of religious supplication. It is currently, I would offer, THE template for Evangelical worship, with its emphasis on childlike chorus-cycles and incantatory prayer.** Often even when one deliberately steps away from a particular religious community such as this, the primal expectations that gave rise to these communal call-and-response rituals remain very much alive and at work in the individual consciousness.***

What the intrepid pilgrim discovers out in the larger world is, in fact, a multiplicity of call-and-response communities and rituals. Navigating these is exceedingly tricky work. Among the more popular options, the rituals and rigours of science are indeed commendable. But when it comes to appealing to the collective consciousness about a communal concern as baseline fundamental as the survival of our species, the scientific community is at a demonstrably significant loss. One reason for this, I suspect, is that our species is not possessed of a singular collective consciousness, but rather a multiplicity of collective consciousnesses.

Since I've already committed myself to the realm of rainbows and unicorns, I'll go the distance and make it personal: to all intents and purposes, I conduct my life presupposing that Pagan Narratives are spinning themselves out in the Cosmos — or at the very least on this planet. More than that, I suspect everyone else does, too,**** and that arriving at some wisdom regarding which of these impulses are healthy and which are detrimental is one of life's most formidable challenges.

If that seems a bit rich, coming from the gormless Christian in the back pew, I'd suggest that one of the more palatable lenses through which to read the Bible is as a cumulative butting against Pagan Narratives, without and within — before finally subsuming them all under one Predominant Cosmic (and comic) Narrative.

At this point my thoughts scatter like marbles on the floor. Some of those marbles are brighter than others; hopefully in the next few days I can point to a few of them as they roll under the couch/fridge/stove.

No Unified Field Theory from me, in other words. Instead, I'll revert to my lazy-bones norm, and point toward the cogent thoughts of others for your perusal. Here’s a short bibliography of works that nudged me toward this POV:

Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic & Mysticism In The Age Of Information.

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible & Literature.

Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, And A Sun God From Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. (A note: the enlightened among us take these men-in-tights stories seriously, but it is safe to say Morrison's enlightenment on this score is of a vastly different plane.)

Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology For A New Millennium.

"We're all Neo-Pagans now, Henry."
*Hm. “Individuation as monotheistic paradigm”? Thoughts for later.

**Liturgical communities attempt to sidestep or subvert some of these expectations by adapting the Jewish practice of Prayer As A Reminder Of Our Place. Job Shrugs: “God is God. What are you going to do?”

***The frustrated apostate: there is no God. Life is evidently cruel. Who to blame? And why?

****I remain cheerfully open to correction: do you know of exceptions?


paul bowman said...

Just catching up on this series of posts. Looking forward to seeing where it goes from here.

I'm a bit curious, naturally, about the Morrison title. Hadn't heard of it — which just shows I'm not paying attention, I guess. Anyway, appears it's at the library, so I'm going to check it out (er, literally).

Darrell Reimer said...

It's a good library book (I got a remaindered hardcover for $6). At first I was put off by his earnest history of superheros, much of which I was already (very) familiar with. But his enthusiasm AND JUDICIOUS USE OF CAPS! won me over. It helped to apply the Scottish accent to the prose.

His personal story is the one that fascinates me most, the bulk of which comes about 2/3 of the way through.

Darrell Reimer said...

Fun fact: Morrison greatly dislikes Moore, or at least what Moore's done to comics.

paul bowman said...

Got over to library near my shop space over the county line today. (I live in Catonsville, in western Baltimore County, and rent spot in Ellicott City, eastern Howard County.)

First time I'd been in this new facility (built next to an earlier that I haunted occasionally, some years ago). As it was raining outside and bright & quiet within, and I'd brought coffee, I hung out for a little while. Read Morrison's intro. I get an idea from that why he and Moore don't jive. Will be reading more — though this morning's skim leads me to think I won't read all.

Before I left, I wandered around and looked over the building's offerings. It's a wonderful community space, very active on the family-oriented ground level this a.m. You'd love it, I feel confident.

I even stopped at the 50¢ paperback rack, something I've never been in habit of, not having a lot of time for fiction. Spotted a Laura Lippman — local celebrated crime novelist & David Simon's wife — and thought I might as well, since I've never read her.

At home (& on the john) I read first chapter of that. Toward end of it there's the following passage, kind of a funny thematic coincidence and sort of contrasting juxtaposition, at the same time, with the Morrison:

paul bowman said...

“... Here's what's not written, although everyone knows the score: Another young black man has died. He probably deserved it. Drug dealer or drug user. Or maybe just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he should have known better than to hang around a drug corner at that time, right? If you want the courtesy of being presumed innocent in certain Baltimore neighborhoods, you better be unimpeachable, someone clearly, unambiguously cut down in the cross fir. A three-year-old getting his birthday haircut. A ten-year-old playing football. I wish these examples were hypothetical.

I'm not claiming that I was different from anyone else in Baltimore, that I read those paragraphs and wondered about the lives that preceded the deaths. No, I made the same calculations that everyone else did, plotting the city's grid in my head, checking to make sure I wasn't at risk. Shot in a movie theater for telling someone else to be quiet? Sure, absolutely, that could happen to me, although there aren't a lot of tough guys in the local art houses. Killed for flipping someone off in traffic? Not my style, but Tess could have died a thousand times over that way. She has a problem with impulse control.

But we're not to be found along East Lombard or Stricker or Mount or any other dubious street, not at 3:00 a.m. Even when I am in those neighborhoods, people leave my ride and me alone. Usually. And it's not because I'm visibly such a nice guy on a do-gooding mission. They don't bother me because I'm not worth the trouble. I'm a red ball walking; kill me and all the resources of the city's homicide division will be brought to bear on the investigation. I'll get more than a paragraph, too. ...

The hard part would be fitting me into a headline. Artist? Musician? Only for my own amusement these days. Restaurant-bar manager? Doesn't really get the flavor of what I do at the Point, which is a bar, but increasingly a very good music venue as well, thanks to the out-of-town bands I've been recruiting. Scion of a prominent Charlottesville family? Even if I were confident that I could pronounce ‘scion’ correctly, I'm more confident that I would never pronounce myself as such. Boyfriend of Tess Monaghan, perhaps Baltimore's best-known private investigator? Um, no thank you. I love her madly, but that's not how I wish to be defined.

I think I'd prefer the simple appellation City Man, the everyday superhero of the headlines. City Man is a fixture in the local paper, too. He wins prizes, he's nominated for national posts, he sues giant corporations, he goes missing on occasion. City Man is eternal.

The everyday homicide cases, those one- or two-paragraph news stories I told you about — those guys never get to be City Man. They are allowed to represent only vague geographic areas — a Southwest Baltimore man, an East Baltimore man, a West Baltimore man. They're even denied their neighborhoods, which in Baltimore is like being denied a piece of your soul. They are not universal enough to be City Men, not emblematic enough to be Collington Square Man or Upper Park Heights Man or even Pigtown Man.

And yet they are. They are more representative of this city than we want to admit. ...”

Joel said...

I'm trying to track with you on these thoughts, but to be honest you're losing me just a little bit here.
Would I be correct in thinking you're defining paganism as polytheism, and this post is about the difference in world view between polytheists, monotheists, and atheists?

On a second note, this quote "I'd suggest that one of the more palatable lenses through which to read the Bible is as a cumulative butting against Pagan Narratives, without and within"

reminded me a lot of these lectures... which Christine Hayes talks about how the Biblical narrative of creation was a response to the more prevalent near eastern Polytheistic stories about gods fighting monsters. But also how the stories about gods fighting monsters snuck their way into other parts of the Bible--some of the Psalms, for instance, and the book of Job.
This may be more my bag than yours, but at least for me personally I found the whole lecture series fascinating. If you're looking for something to throw on your ipad while you're puttering around the house or out for a walk, you could do a lot worse than this series.

Darrell Reimer said...

I suspect atheists are the only monotheists.

paul bowman said...

Now you're rolling.

Darrell Reimer said...

Terrific Lippman quote, Paul - I'll be giving her a closer look. And that's a fabulous looking building, very much in line with the sorts of places I simply could not pull myself away from when I was a kid (hard to do as an adult, too).

Darrell Reimer said...

Joel - I'm afraid I broke my "Don't drink & post" rule with that earlier, terse quip (still had a generous dram-and-a-bit left from the weekend away).

That said, sometimes it's worth breaking a rule or two. I suspect atheists are the only monotheists is, perhaps, overly frank, but it is a direct expression of some of my vaguer apprehensions re: consciousness (singular and collective), social interaction, interaction with the environment.

I distrust world views. I do not define paganism as polytheism. I suggest Paganism is our species' inherent response to the environment. Anyone claiming otherwise is attempting to reroute that response into behaviors that are, for whatever reason, considered desirable. Or, perhaps more likely, anyone claiming otherwise is attempting to reroute others' perceptions of the claimant's behavior.

(Don't make it any less pagan, mm-hm.)

Darrell Reimer said...

Further: her approach is quite distinct mine, but still a pleasant provocation.

"Religion, conventionally, is taken to mean a set of beliefs or a system of values and practices that relate to some kind of 'ultimate meaning.' In a secular society, religion is partly substituted by ethics, the discourse about what it is to live a good and decent life. The problem with the ethical is that it assumes a modern, rational subject, one who is capable of choosing and acting on decisions based on moral and intellectual considerations. This model is flawed: there is a realm of the psyche – the unconscious, in psychoanalytic terms – that is beyond the control of the rational individual self. The Pagan traditions, at least as they have been reinterpreted in our time, suggest that we can communicate with this 'other realm' through dream, myth, story, ritual, and the body. The precise mix of sources and a range of personal and group preferences in ways of performing rituals and narrating important ideas determines the style of each tradition and the evolution of the whole religion."

octopus hearts said...

Right, let me back up and start again then.
I'm not following all the implications of this post 100%. For reasons I suspect are more my fault than yours. I'm a bit thick, and not philosophically orientated. (As I admitted recently on my own blog

my entire reading list is made up of books that don't require me to think a lot, and lay out everything in a straight forward narrative.) I get lost easily when the conversation turns philosophical, or when your prose only hints at conclusions instead of explicitly connecting the dots.

Plus, it must be admitted, I haven't fully done the background research necessary to participate in the conversation. I don't even know what neo-paganism is. Is this a good place to start?

All that being said, even though I can't track your thoughts from beginning to end, there are a couple of things that stuck with me. (A couple of bright marbles, to use your analogy, that I'm able to pick up even without grasping the whole thing.)
The idea of the frustrated apostate coming from the same mindset as the religious resonates with me. (And may even describe myself more than I like to admit.)

The idea of religious ceremonies, and the call to worship, imitating the way a child tries to control its parents also stuck with me a bit. As well as the idea of all religious impulses being based off our conditioning as children has been making me ponder the past couple days.

As for my own view, however, when it comes to religion and the mysteries of the universe, this to me is the first and last word on religion:

Joel said...

Sorry, that last one was from me. Shared work computer--previous person forgot to log out apparently.

Darrell Reimer said...

And here I envisioned you trolling the web and leaving affirmational commentary as "Octopus Hearts."

An amusing kvetch (very British), and not a little thought-provoking. He makes a few presuppositions I'd probably nudge him on if we were sitting across from each other. It strikes me as distant observation. He mentions fire worship, for instance. The people who throw themselves into the flames usually have very clear ideas of what the Hell is going on. That's worth listening to, even if we might understandably do so at safe remove.

Darrell Reimer said...

The Wiki link is about as good as these things get. I'd encourage you to pick up TechGnosis, though. And Grant Morrison's book, for that matter (you being a DC man and all).