Monthly Archives: September 2014

Insights from Fiction

I was at Convolution this past weekend. One of the things I did there was to attend a panel discussion of religion in science fiction and fantasy. The panelists touched on how religion has been presented in fiction so far, but most of the discussion was on how best to write it into one’s fiction. I’m bringing it up here, because I’ve often found fiction to be a useful laboratory in which to play with ways of thinking about the rest of life.

My general take-away was that religion is best represented in fiction through the way people enact it in their lives. The opinion of the panelists (and most of the attendees) was that what one professes to believe is the lesser part of religion. The greater is what one does by it, the way it informs the way one lives.

Which brings us to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It was one of the examples of how religion was treated not-so-well in science fiction. It was better than some, but not what it could have been. I don’t need to explain the whole story for those who have not seen the show, it’s enough to know that the show was about a Federation space station near the planet Bajor. The show presents the Bajoran religion as being centered around entities the Bajorans call Prophets, who give visions of the past an future. For the present, let’s just accept the idea of an entire planet with just one religion, same as we’d accept warp drive, as a tool for simplifying storytelling.

Naturally, this being Star Trek, the Prophets are revealed to be well-meaning aliens living in a nearby wormhole. Because they live outside normal space-time, they see time–past, present, and future–as easily as you or I might look north or south. They occasionally communicate with the Bajorans, who experience such contacts as transcendent visions. Mystery solved: The Bajorans worship wormhole aliens, mistaking them for gods.

There were many episodes that touched on Bajoran religion, mostly about how Bajoran characters reject the Federation’s scientific explanation in favor of faith, or about how Bajoran religious officials meddle in politics. They showed different sects, but mainly as motivational rhetoric for political factions.

They missed an opportunity.

What they showed us was religion as seen by people who don’t see religion as real. What would have been a better take on religion on Bajor would not be so simple as “worship of the Prophets.” It would not have been the receiving of visions. It would have been the ongoing debate about what those visions meant, and how to incorporate that meaning into their lives. It would have been about the intersection of a given groups survival needs and this debate around meaning. It would have been about how two schools of thought saw the same experience of contact with the Prophets as meaning very different things.

Again, fiction is a good place to play with ways to think about life.

I can receive a hundred visions of Dionysos, but if it’s not affecting how I live my life, isn’t He wasting His time? Similarly, if we engage in a hundred debates about the details of our individual encounters with the gods, but don’t actually derive any meaning that informs our other life experiences, aren’t we wasting ours?


Watching My Step

Over the last year or so, the Pagan blogosphere has been host to several discussions of polytheism. Some have been friendlier than others.

“Polytheist” means, basically, belief that the gods are many. Seems simple enough, and apparently applies to the majority of modern Pagans. There’s some controversy about it; despite the relatively clear definition of the word. A lot of people have said a lot of things, but the central issue isn’t that complicated.

In brief, there are a small but growing number of folks who identify themselves as Polytheists as well as, or instead of, identifying as modern Pagans. To these people, the experience of the gods and spirits as individual entities, independent of humanity, with their own personalities and preferences, is vitally central to their spiritual lives.

In contrast, modern Pagans, at lest on a community level, hold common practice to be more important than the details of one’s personal experience of the gods and spirits. This leads to a communal ritual form enacting a metaphysical understanding in which the individuality of any given spirit is secondary to their inclusion in broad, easily identifiable categories, even to the point of denying that gods and spirits have any independent reality at all.

Many pixels have died in the flame wars over the implications this distinction has for the real inclusivity of modern Pagan communities, and whether or not those identifying as Polytheists really have any place in the perhaps-not-as-big-as-we-thought tent of the Pagan community.

This is all by way of context; I don’t want to re-hash the whole debate here. The point of this is to show part of what I’m navigating in entering into a more Polytheist practice, and part of why I feel a need to do so with careful, conscious intent.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with enacting communal religion with folks who don’t share my understanding of the gods. They aren’t me, so I shouldn’t expect that their experiences and needs will the the same as mine. Even so, I do need to be more careful about what kind of community rituals I give my support and energy to. The distinction between a ritual wherein encountering the gods as personal beings is not the point and a ritual that denies the personal reality of the gods is more important to me, now.


Why Polytheism?

I am making a conscious effort to become more polytheistic in my spiritual life, focusing less on the forms of any given tradition, and more on individual relationships with specific deities.

My first experience as a modern Pagan was a full moon ritual, based on the rituals in Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance. It was powerful, filling me with a sense of divine presence unlike anything I’d ever felt before. For years afterward, this was my primary mode of spiritual practice: eclectic Wiccan rituals, gradually replacing a general Goddess and God with names and imagery from the mythologies with which I was familiar.

This began to change when I first encountered Dionysos, and began relating to him as an individual, rather than as a manifestation of the Wiccan God. I started to feel the difference between the sense of divine presence, and the sense of the presence of a specific divinity. Since meeting Him, I have slowly developed two approaches to the spirit. One of them was a development of what I’d always done, and the other was based around the pursuit of a personal relationship with Dionysos.

Following the dissolution of my Central Valley Wicca coven a few years back, except for attending a few public rituals in the local community, I haven’t done much in the way of Wicca-style religion. My relationship with Dionysos, however, remains strong, and I’ve begun to feel the influence of other gods and spirits in my life. The generalized sense of divine presence is not as satisfying to me as it once was, nor is the lack of specific focus I find in so many public rituals.

I want that experience of encounter with a god. I’ve had the feeling that the other world is there, and now I want to know it through personal relationships with beings with names, personalities, and a solid sense of their own reality.

So I am embracing polytheism, consciously, deliberately, and with as fully as I can.


Places to Go, People to See

My lover Ember and I have decided to go through Galina Krasskova’s Devotional Polytheist Meme questions together, over the next several months. We encourage our friends to follow along, and welcome links to other people’s answers in our comments, as well as your thoughts on our answers.

If you could travel anywhere on pilgrimage, where would you go and what would you do?

Here’s the thing: I’m not much of a reconstructionist. Ancient places might be fun to visit, but they’re not the top of the list. I’d rather tour the nation (or the world) visiting festivals and conferences, meeting the people who are practicing here and now, getting to know them, and sharing experiences.

Oh, I expect I would get a feeling of connection with the old places, or at least some kind of identification with the ancient pagans who lived and worshiped there. That’s good, it’s potentially powerful… But I’d rather get that from the living, if I have to choose.

Community is important to me. Making connections with the people whose blogs I’ve been reading (or podcasts I’ve been hearing) is more useful to me. Joining in with folks celebrating their lives and their gods is real to me in a way that strong, old vibes from the past are not.

For various reasons, I don’t get out much, and the isolation isn’t good for either myself or my practice. Conferences like Pantheacon and events like Pagan Pride do me a world of good. I’d like to make it to the Polytheist Leadership Conference next year, if I can swing the time and money.

And, hey, it’s cheaper than a trip to Delphi and Eleusis.

Ember’s answer can be found at her blog, Embervoices.


On Faith

I hear this one pretty often, among Polytheists and Pagans alike:

“We’re not a religion of faith. We don’t need faith, we have experience!”

I’m pretty sure that faith is still part of most Pagan and Polytheist religion. Faith that the voices we hear sometimes are the spirits, and not our own minds. Faith that the meaningful coincidences are actually divine action, and not ordinary coincidences lent meaning by our self-created internal narratives. Faith, in short, that we’re actually experiencing something other than wish fulfillment and self delusion.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had an experience so solid that I don’t need faith. In fact, it’s usually not fifteen minutes after any spiritual experience I have is over before the doubts set in, armed with reasonable explanations and scientific materialism. Any feeling of concrete reality I have in the moment fades shortly after the moment passes, and I can never quite recall it to mind.

Sometimes, I dream dreams that feel absolutely real, as convincing and solid as any waking experience. A few years back, I had a series of recurring dreams in which I was living my normal life, but secretly owned a pistol I kept hidden from my no-guns-in-my-house partner. It felt so real that, sometimes, I’d catch myself wondering (in waking hours) whether or not I really did have a gun hidden in my bedroom. I don’t, actually. It’s just a dream, and any truth to it can only be allegorical.

But that’s the dilemma. A dream can feel real enough to leave me momentarily confused about my gun ownership, but my spiritual practice doesn’t?

Well, I don’t expect my relationship with Dionysos to confuse me about gun ownership. But you get the idea, I hope.

Which brings us back to faith. I have to have faith that I’m not crazy, or wasting my time. It’s hard to keep.

So, seriously… Anyone reading this: Am I alone in this? Do other Polytheists have the same doubts? Or is the reality of the gods somehow as concrete as it seems, reading your blogs, and I’m somehow missing out?


Remember the Hope, Not the Fear

Thirteen years ago, the United States was attacked. After that, there was a time where we had more hope than fear. When Americans forgot their differences for a little while, and pulled together to recover. When the world was with us, in sympathy and good will.

We, as a nation, squandered that hope and good will.

We dishonor the dead when we use them as an excuse to abandon and trample the rights they were born to. The ancestors cannot be pleased with what we’ve done with their legacy, and we can do so much better.

Today and from now on, let us not dwell on fear or pain. Let us look ahead to how we might live better, how we might honor our American ancestors. Let us look to how we might heal the wounds in our cultural legacy, and make this world better for our descendants.


Does Magic Work?

My practice now is mostly devotional, aimed less at tangible results and more at cultivating a strong relationship with my gods. Like many folks, I started out with a romantic, fantasy-tinged idea of what modern Paganism was all about. And, honestly, there were ten Learn to Cast Spells books for every one Learn to Listen to the Gods books in those days, so it was easy to get the impression that it was all about the Vast Cosmic Power. At the time, I felt pretty good about this, and about magic, and I was doing a spell every week or so.

As I kept on, the magic seemed to fade in importance. Maybe it was the process of growing from 19 to 30, the relative maturity of spending a decade at this work. At any rate, establishing solid communications with the gods took over shortly after I met Dionysos for the first time. My spell work slowed, became a sideline, and eventually, mostly stopped. I don’t miss it so much.

But, does magic work? Honestly, I’m not decided.

It’s a question a lot of magicians don’t like to answer. First off, like anyone else, we can be pretty touchy when we feel like we’re being mocked. Second, few of us keep really good records of what we’ve tried and what results we observed. Really, though, I think it’s because most magicians who actually think critically about what they do just aren’t sure.

Repeatable, objective results are hard to achieve. I cast a spell to get a job, and there are all kinds of factors involved besides whether or not I did the spell right. The local economy matters, the health of the specific industries to which I apply matters, where I send resumes and with whom I network matter. If I don’t get a job, did my spell fail? Or was it just not magically butch enough to overcome other factors? If I did get a job, similar questions apply.

Enough stalling. Does magic work?

Well, that depends…

The question is too broad. If I were to divide my past practice into what seems to me to have worked and what seems to have not worked, the distinction becomes pretty clear.

Operational magic, when I cast a spell to make something happen in the world outside of my head (like the job spell above), is really my weak spot. In honesty, I’ve never gotten a job after casting a job spell, and that lottery charm didn’t work, either. I can’t say for sure that my sick friends have gotten better, faster, because of healing spells.  Other people claim to have better, clearer results, but I’ve not seen anything that I couldn’t explain by mundane means, or dumb luck.

So, does operational magic work? In my experience, probably not, but I’m open to being surprised.

Then there’s visionary work.  What I’m talking about here is the kind of magic that takes place inside my head, and inside the heads of the folks I’m working with. This is spirit summoning, communing with deity, the sort of thing where the goal is to evoke a vision or invoke specific states of consciousness. This works well, and repeatedly, though not at all provably, in any objective sense.

For instance, I once performed a spirit evocation to help me write a book review. The magic worked, in that I did experience a vision of speaking to a serpent-spirit on its home turf. That experience did give me insight I needed to complete the review.

There’s also divination. For six years, I was a tarot reader at <a href=http://ancientways.com>Ancient Ways</a>, an occult book and supply store in Oakland. I’ve also helped interpret dreams and omens, and very occasionally had <em>something</em> grab the back of my brain and force words out of my mouth.

I’ve never been particularly good at doing this for myself, mind you, but other people seem quite satisfied with my efforts. This may be an effect of how the process works for me; dealing the cards (for instance) is just the first part. Each card has several possible interpretations, all on the same theme, but not all applying in every case. In the moment, one interpretation will feel truer than the others, and that’s what I’ll go with. These individual interpretations are given context by their positions in a spread, and I’ll turn the whole thing into a narrative. The second part is the other person listening to me, evaluating and applying the narrative I’ve given in the context of their own feelings and experiences, and figuring out what it means to them.

When I’m reading for myself, the “one interpretation will feel truer” bit fails. I get too much interference from my own desires and fears.

The lesson I’ve taken from this is that magic allowing me to work on the immaterial aspects of a problem, in order to better tackle the material aspects, works rather well.

So, does magic work? Yes, I think it does. So long as you don’t expect it to work like magic.


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