Monday, 28 May 2012

Do we want a Goddess Religion?

There has been quite a flurry of postings on other blogs in response to a Catholic blogger's assertion of the notion that monotheism, and particularly Catholicism, represent the pinnacle of an evolutionary process.  In the course of his argument he invokes what he sees as ancient paganism to attack in order to attack "post-christians (whoever and whatever they may be). There are a couple of well-considered responses to the nonsense he writes here and here. I urge anyone interested to read them. My own major issue with the post in question is not the ignorance and arrogance that is displayed but the sheer misogyny therein.  He is certainly well in line with mainstream theology in that regard.

The post and the rebuttals, however, chimed in a way with something that I have been trying to write for a few days.  What are religions?  How do they emerge?  Is religion a "good thing"?  And following this, is what might be loosely called the Goddess Movement developing into a religion?

As a starting point for this, I would like to turn to Blake.

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could percieve.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity;
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood;
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounc'd that the Gods had order'd such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.
(William Blake: Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Plate 4)

Here Blake seems to see a sort of evolutionary process going on - from poetry to priestcraft.  He does not, however, see this as a good thing but rather as something that appropriates for its own ends humanity's innate direct connection with the divine.  In so doing it eradicates the human individual's own ability to connect with the deity within her or himself.

I am not going to offer an exact definition of what constitutes a religion.  There does not seem to be a scholarly consensus on this, as can be seen, from an anthropological viewpoint here or a legal one here. Religion is, as it were, a broad church and can encompass everything from animism in New Guinea to Zen to the Quakers to the Catholics, from the Vatican through Mecca to Salt Lake City and every station in between.  Many aspects of religion appear also in nominally atheistic regimes such as the Soviet Union or today's North Korea.  A religion seems to need a shared communal vision and that vision is often, but by no means always,  guided or controlled by some central authority.  Very often, in literate societies, there is a set of sacred texts which are referenced in which the transcendental is somehow codified and the means of access to it are laid out.  In those religions with sacred texts there has developed a class of people whose task it is to communicate the meanings of the texts to those who cannot spare the time or have no ability or have no interest in doing so for themselves.

As a species we need social interaction.  We need  spaces in which we can congregate together with those we consider to hold certain values in common, whether they be the gospels or a certain football club.   Religious ceremony meets such needs.  My father once described his ultimate spiritual experience to me as standing in Cardiff Arms Park watching Wales thrash England at Rugby.  He was not being ironic.  He meant it.  I must confess to having experienced a very faint echo of this in the last Six Nations contest as the Grand Slam was achieved.  (For non-UK readers, the Six Nations are Wales, Ireland, Scotland, England, France and Italy and the Grand Slam is a victory against all).  This is despite an aversion to all other team sports.  Religion, particularly in the home, is infectious.

For all practical purposes sport is not a religion, however. It does not claim for itself any sort of authority or control over the day to day life of its adherents.   The off-side rule, for example, applies only on the pitch and has no relevance elsewhere.  Once the match is over, the beer is drunk and both the players and spectators go home, either elated or chastened. Once home, their life is guided by whatever they hold to be their religious, or secular, values.

For the sake of argument, then, I would suggest that religions as we know them in  the West share certain characteristics: they are expressed communally,  they promote a set of values and behaviours, they have sacred texts, they have a revered founder and they have a belief in a reality different from the current one.  There is also a liturgical element: a set of activities designed to bring the participant into the fight frame of mind to experience .  Under this set of criteria we can include Marxism and Buddhism, which do not have as their basis a belief in any deity beyond History in the former and Dharma in the latter. 

If the above is accepted as a working definition then it is clear that the Goddess movement as it stands today is not a religion.  Yet.  I fear, however, that it could become so.

My journey to Goddess was one of individual exploration and some revelation.  Dreams and synchronicities guided some of it and some was a deliberate search for meaning based in those individual, unmediated, experiences.  The experiences came first and the reading and the explorations were undertaken in order to give some sort of context and coherence to them.  It seemed to me that the books did not give me new information but served as a reminder of what I already  I knew but had forgotten.  Gradually, I have built a sort of system that meets my needs and understanding.  I have, in effect, told stories to myself.  This is what human beings do - we need narratives in order to give our lives context and coherence.  The story, moreover, changes over time. For as long as my life continues, I expect and hope the story to be edited and re-edited in order to fit each new situation I meet.

For this reason, I have always been reluctant to write.  For, once written, words take on a life of their own.  They persist long after the author has moved on.  They are, for me, a snapshot - albeit often blurred - of a particular moment in my thought.  Thoughts are temporary, but the written word has a permanence determined only by the length of time that there are readers reading it. Elsewhere on this blog, there are words that today do not hold true for me, even though they did then.  I am, in that sense, inconsistent and I hope that I will always remain so.  Whatever I may write it is nothing other than a story -contingent on time and space.  Whatever it may contain, it contains no eternal and universal Truth.

Not that my words have any great currency.  My stats show that my readership is very small.  There was a time when this would have discouraged me.  But it does so  no longer.  The blog serves the purpose of allowing me to formulate my thoughts and you, dear reader, are a means towards that end.  I am striving to a greater understanding and this is one aspect of this.  My book, when it is written, is likewise probable to have a very limited readership.  This again, apart from the lack of the boost I would get to my ego, is no real problem and will not stop me from continuing.

For the book will be one among many.  Just as this blog is.  When I first started to search for Goddess, books that I could read were rare and I pounced upon them as I would the finest jewels.  Now there are many, some excellent, many good, many indifferent and some downright bad.  Where my own offerings stand in that spectrum I have no idea.  It is, anyway, a mere matter of taste.

What I fear is that one or two books among the excellent and good may, for future generations, come to be seen as scripture.  This is not the intent of any of the writers who would be horrified, were they alive, to see that this had happened.  Nevertheless, our culture's reverence for the written word may bring it about and things within them repeated as articles of faith, to be defended against all criticism.  An example of this is the figure of nine million women dead in the Burning Times. This figure is clearly highly inflated - such a death toll of women in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, given the populations of the time, would have left an obvious trace in the record and yet there is absolutely no evidence for it.  The anger with which I  have sometimes been met when I ventured to question the figure is evidence of the beginning of an orthodoxy,  Furthermore, the Inquisition was concerned with heresy and the eradication of Islam and Judaism, not witchcraft - which was usually dealt with by the civil authority, albeit with input from the clergy. 

Thus the Burning Times are like the Exodus or the Davidic and Solomonic Kingdom.  There may be some historical basis for them but the details are exagerrated.   Many, possibly hundreds of thousands of,  witches were tortured and executed - some by burning.  But not 9,000,000.  I am not sure where and when this figure first appeared but I suspect that its currency has much to do with the figure of 6,000,000 Jews killed in the holocaust.  And it has made for a very good song.

All of which is not to say that the old pagan religions of Europe did not suffer persecution.  They did. But so did the Cathars and the Templars, Jews, Muslims and Gypsies, and Protestants by Catholics and vice-versa.  The war was not focused on pagan practitioners but on all who were perceived as a threat by Authority, be it temporal or spiritual.  Plus, they were a useful scapegoat in times of public distress.

Likewise, there is no independent evidence of an organised continuity of belief from pre-Christian times.  There was, rather, an accommodation in most instances between the Church and indigenous beliefs and practices - with the old goddesses and gods being canonised as Christian saints and local customs being honoured as Christian celebration.  Some indeed may have been aware of the co-option but the veneer of Christianity was intact.  Intact, that is, until the Reformation when the new book-based theology took precedence.  It was during the tumult that followed Luther that the witch hunts reached their peak, with Protestants being more alert to a perceived pagan threat and, if anything, more  zealous in applying the text "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live".

It is very useful for a religion to have some sort of founding myth.  Islam has Mohammed being visited by an angel.  Similarly with Joseph Smith and Mormonism.  Jesus was born of a virgin and rose again from the dead.  Siddhartha Gotama, having been shielded from birth from the sight of anyone suffering, left his royal palace and after many years became Buddha.  The Burning Times serve many in this fashion.

What I believe is happening today, with the new awareness of Goddess, is not a reawakening of an old repressed religion, but the birth of something entirely new.  It is, of course, informed by the past.  We can, without necessarily claiming them as co-religionists, honour all those who refused to compromise their integrity by bowing the knee to authority, even if they were Jesuit priests in Early Modern Britain.  We can look back at the beliefs and practices of Classical Greece or further, as I do, ancient Mesopotamia.  We can look to the insights of such as Gimbutas and Mellart as to the prehistoric eras, without denying that they could have been in error in many places.  For they are human.

What we gain from our ancestors and modern scholarship is, for me, the distinct probability that things have not always been as they are today.  That there is another way of relating to the divine and to each other.  They give us hints as to how we can relate remote experience to our present situation and build on firmer foundations.

What we must not do, I feel, is to cease from questioning Authority, even if it is our own.  Each individual will, and must, have a different relationship with Goddess and no-one should can prescribe how this must be.  For a long time, I practiced as priest and teacher but have now ceased to do so. I am uncertain that such a position is necessary.  I may take it up again or I may not.  That is open.  But I cannot do so in the way I did before.

However, whatever we may call it, it is essential to avoid appropriating what Blake termed the poetic stories.  They must remain just that, stories.  What each individual takes from the stories is up to them.  I read them one way, and you read them another, whereas a third sees things within them that neither of us has seen.  What I love about Goddess is diversity.  However, we are already seeing temples being opened,  including the one I was very closely associated with for several years, and the inevitable result has been a development of liturgical form.  This may be necessary as the movement grows but it presents a danger.  Once a ceremony has been written down, it may begin to be repeated even when the original ceremony was devised in response to a very particular set of circumstances that no longer apply.

Likewise a book may present a particular individual's way of relating to Goddess, but those who read may well try to emulate the exact devotional forms of the author.  Thus priestesshood becomes entrenched in people's minds and we may well begin to believe that the goddess ordered such things.

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