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Questions from Christians

A few questions I occasionally get from interested Christians. It is my hope that by posting these, it will give you some way of formulating your answers if you are asked similar questions. Having an answer ready makes you look well-educated, prepared, and trustworthy. It will add a lot of credibility to what you are saying, which helps out the cause of equal respect. If you have tough questions that people ask you, send ’em my way! Even if you don’t agree, it might give you a perspective to work with. Here goes!

Learning about the Wiccan culture and practice is interesting.  Do you find it difficult to transition from your past practices and beliefs hindering to your practice?  If not, how have you overcome this obstacle.  If so, what are you doing to correct this hindrance?

Great question!

I was raised secular, so adding on religious ideas wasn’t particularly difficult because the religious ideas didn’t change my mind–they confirmed what I’d already believed, and gave me an avenue of expression. Many of my friends are not as lucky. We have a joke in the community that someone is a “recovering” Catholic, for example, because they come into Wicca with a lot of shame and ideas about how the world works which differ from Wicca. Although they are sincere, it takes a lot of work to change those ideas–they go very deep. And sometimes the ideas can’t be shaken off (or they don’t want to, which is entirely their choice) and they end up with some kind of hybrid.

I always wondered if when you have situational ethics they are dependant upon the decision making of the individual. If so what about boundries not accepted by others and if not what does set the ethical standard?

The ethical standard is simple, “An it harm none, do what thou will.” We support a strong sense of individulism, which means not treading on someone elses rights. Actions are judged on how much harm is generated, or whether someone elses rights were taken away. But that means that some actions the mainstream considers inappropriate, would fall under our situational ethics as being OK. Somethings are OK to a certain point, like the use of drugs or alcohol in excess. The ethics reach far beyond person-to-person contact, so we would consider how actions affect the environment, our animal companions, and Karma, because what you send out comes back to you (different from how Indian cultures define Karma–we need a new word!). It is then expected that you will accept the consequences of your actions. Everything is a choice–it’s a lot of work!

Keep those questions coming!

Various Names and Guises of Witchcraft

January 26, 2010 2 comments

Dear Witchful Thinking

Greetings, I have been exploring Paganism and Wicca for a few years now and am still searching for the path that feels right. One of the reasons I was drawn to Wicca is that there are no hard and fast rules other than, of course, the Wiccan Rede which I follow carefully.  About Nocturnal Witchcraft. I have read about it a bit an it seems to be another form of Wicca, simply practiced at night, with night Gods and Goddesses. Am I right? I am most definitely a night person, always have been. I find the night to be more gentle, I feel a great sense of freedom at night, and also one cannot see all the “cracks in the pavement” if you will at night. The negativity in this world is all too visible in the light of day.  Anyway, what are your thoughts on this? I know that Wiccans do NOT worship Satan, do not even recognize his existence so I don’t believe that this type of Witchcraft has anything to do with Satanism.  I would very much like to explore Nocturnal Witchcraft and the only author that I seem to find is Konstantinos. I will understand if you aren’t comfortable recommending a particular author but any input would be most helpful. Also, thank you for your piece on Magickal names. I am searching for one that feels right to me, but don’t find having one necessary. I would use it for identity protection. I find that many folks who are new to Wicca and Paganism get caught up in the trappings.  Look forward to hearing from you.  Blessed Be

Emi M.

Dear Emi,

From "The Goddess Oracle" by Amy Marashinsky. Art by Hrana Janto. This is one of my favorite decks.

Welcome to Wicca! May the Gods bless your path and may you find what you seek.  The world of Witchcraft is a wild one, and it is very much like a landscape. There are many paths already made through lots of terrain, but one could easily create one’s own path. In the end, it’s a question of “where are you going” and your own choices that will dictate the direction you travel.

I dare say I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to some definitions. Please do not think I am chiding you, for I’m not, and respect what you’ve already come to know. I only want to be clear in our definitions. I know I am going to get flaming hate mail for saying this (please be aware that I’m coming from an academic background as much as a spiritual one)–but there are certain things you MINIMALLY ought to practice and believe if you are to call yourself Wiccan:

  • Work with a God (often horned) and Goddess (often triple).
  • See all of nature and the cosmos as alive.
  • Include the use of ritual magic or spellcasting.
  • Follow the Wiccan Rede.
  • Celebrate the eight Sabbats on the Wheel of the Year.
  • Celebrate the Esbat rituals which often includes Drawing Down the Moon.

There are, of course, many variations and manifestations of these beliefs. For example, many Dianic Wiccans only worship a Goddess, although they acknowledge the God, and are still considered Wiccan. I don’t think it is right for folks to cherry-pick the parts of the religion they like and call themselves Wiccan–they should call themselves something else, because there is already a definition of Wicca. It’d be like someone going to a Buddhist temple, but never meditating or following the Eight Fold Path and calling themselves Buddhist–it just isn’t accurate, and it is rude to those who actually follow the tenants of Buddhism. If you only like some aspects of Wicca, but don’t follow the others, and do not belong to an established tradition, then please label yourself accurately as a Pagan, or whatever is more accurate for you.

I think some folks feel their path won’t be taken seriously if they simply go by the term “Pagan”, so they use the safety of the word “Wicca” to validate their path to outsiders. “Pagan” is the catch-all word for what we believe, not “Wiccan”. Wiccans do not believe whatever they want and call it Wicca, rather, they worship in however way they want, based on the list mentioned above. The idea is to create your own unique and individual relationship with the Gods. No one can dictate that relationship to you. The ritual trappings, the tools, hierarchy and liturgy are designed to help you cultivate that relationship, grow as a person, and manifest the good from it in the real world. But Wiccans follow a similar path to do that, and end up with similar theology and ideas about the world and the Gods. Their beliefs are based out of experience which is based out of religious practices–not the other way around. Paganism requires no such beliefs short of being one who worships nature–with no dictation about how that should happen, nor does it require or nessicarily believe in a relationship with the Gods. Pagans may focus on nature spirits, the Fey, or work with specific pantheons, but if they aren’t following a Wiccan path they are not Wiccan. Many writers who are not in the community confuse the two terms, so start reading folks who are in the movement to help clear up any misconceptions.

Of course, no one should tell you what religion you are–that is your right to make that declaration. Soap box rant over. Let’s move on.

The author of "Nocturnal Witchcraft", Konstantinos. Cute, yes?

I haven’t read the book you mentioned by Konstantinos, so I couldn’t give it a hearty recommendation (but on your suggestion, it is now on my ever-expanding “to read” list!), but I did do some research about it. It looks like you are correct in your assessment that it is a Wiccan primer that focuses more on the “dark” aspects (literally, in the dark, not evil–which he makes a big deal about not being). In a sense, it gives a guide to those who are more attracted to the moon and stars and the cover of darkness. When you think about Wicca 101 books, they always talk about Lunar Esbats being at the Full Moon, but as you expand your practice, you might choose to do Dark or New Moon Esbats, and you may come across Deity that prefers to be underground or only comes out at night.

Although it is true that you can’t see the “cracks in the pavement” and the negativity that exists during the day, different dangers appear in the night which, to me, are much scarier. The darkness is where monsters live. Not only the literal crime and seedy underbelly of the city, but our own nightmares and fears. The challenge of working Witchcraft at night is to face those fears. I believe it is a much harder path, but one that well-rounded witches will come to at some time or another, whether they want to or not! So really, Nocturnal Witchcraft is….. (drum roll) Witchcraft!

Two things are happening here: 1) because we don’t have established rules or doctrines beyond the basics I mentioned above, our religious vocabulary lacks descriptions of specific kinds of paths. 2) because we do not have a class of those who are religiously trained in said non-existent doctrines, there are very few ways for those talented in the ways of the Craft to make money except for writing and selling books, which, as you know, are marketed by people who want to make money.

A gifted Craft teacher may have a path that they have well-traveled that is different from other peoples, and want to write about it and share it with others who might travel behind them. So they write a book, knowing the information will reach a great many people, and allow them a paycheck so that they might continue on with their service to the community (yay!). Then the editors look at the book and talk about how to sell it. They have to create a brand and protect the intellectual property of the author, whom they hope to make more money on in the future, so they give it a fancy name, without considering if there is already a path like it. Sometimes the name sticks, and sometimes it doesn’t.

But all religions have movements and denominations that come and go, or go by different names and actually believe the same thing. If you don’t believe me, check out the book Which Witch is Witch. I found a pattern when I plotted the regions the different denominations of Paganism did their work: in the Pacific Northwest, for example, there is a big Druid group, a hearty Heathen population, a Scottish family trad, reconstructionists, Dianic wyminns circles, Fairie trad, Wicca and Gardnerian covens, traditions started by solitaries, and a few off-branches of Gardnerians that go by various names–you will find this exact same list of types in each area of the country, but they go by different names and are run by different people. Of course, none of them would dream of conglomerating under one name! The groups have their own names, though they often have the same beliefs and similar paths–but they all have different histories and members, which vary by region.

Getting back to your question: Nocturnal Witchcraft is just one of many paths you can take. Personally, I don’t think you need to specify if you are practicing light/white or dark/black witchcraft, as it just confuses people, and a well-rounded witch works with both. If you like the phrase of it, you can choose to call your practice that. But I suspect the author has the name branded, so unless someone has read his book, they may not understand what you practice, so be ready to explain! I can definitely recommend the book The Dark Archetype for delving into ritual for “darker” gods. This book will guide you in where to get started for a handful of deities like Hekate, Anubis, the Grim Reaper, Baba Yaga and Lillith, among others. What I think you’ll find in your practice, however, is that most Godforms have a light and a dark side, but I suspect they start us out easy, and only show us their darker nature when we are ready to see it.

Hail, Diana!

Want an example? Pick any Greek God or Goddess and you’ll soon see their wrathful side. Zeus has more lovers than he can count, much to his wife’s chagrin, even solemn Athena once punished a girl who was raped in her temple. These Gods aren’t here for us to imitate–they absolutely do not model perfect behavior, especially not for mortals. But they do show us the whole spectrum of human relating, emotion and depth.

Most often, Wicca 101 books start with the easy light stuff, just like the Godforms do, to ease us into a new religion and not scare our parents. If you are already interested in finding out what goes on in the darkness, perhaps you are ready for the challenge of this kind of Craft. But remember to come into the light, too. Wicca is about balance, after all.

You are dead-on in your assessment about Satan’s place here–he has none! He is part of Christian (and a little bit Muslim) theology, of which we are outside. His terrain is not on our map, if you will. Satanism as a movement, too, belongs on the Christian map, and not lumped with us…no matter how hard some Christians try!

I think of all these names and traditions as places on a map. For those at home in one area might share a deep affinity with a place, even as they explore different locales, yet others might know it by a different name. Of course, there is night and day in all places. As Pagans and Wiccans, we are all sharing the same map, but we aren’t all going to the same place, and we definitely don’t take the same path to get there. That’s what makes it so different, so individual and wonderful.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

(and then check out this interesting interpretation)

Changes in “The Charge”: New Perspectives on Time and Space for Neo-Pagans

January 25, 2010 5 comments

“Time and Space are Real Beings

Time is a Man     Space is a Woman

William Blake “A Vision from the Last Judgment”

Ninian Smart says that the study of Religion “is a six dimensional organism, typically containing doctrines, myths, ethical teachings, rituals, and social institutions, and animated by religious experiences of various kinds.” While this famous professor promotes a secular comparison of various religions, he also realizes that “each religion must also be seen essentially in its own terms, from within, as it were” (Smart). In order to look within Neo-Paganism and Wicca, we must look to these dimensions to understand its religiosity. The rituals and liturgy can give us insight into the doctrines of this modern religion that flies outside of Western Christian convention yet stays well within (and in some ways predates) the study of quantum mechanics and science.

Wicca, also known as “The Craft” and “The Old Religion”, is actually a newer religious movement and prides itself on having no central organization, and because of this has very little shared liturgy. However, the “Charge of the Goddess” is considered to be divinely inspired. Like the gospels of The Bible, its origins are shrouded in mystery, and there are nearly as many variations as there are publications. “The Charge”, as it is referred to, has its own unique history and experience which falls outside of traditional concepts of space and time. This short prose piece transmutes into other recognizable forms of literature, including ritual and liturgy, depending upon the reader and their intentions.

“The Charge of the Goddess” has a fairly specific place in a ritual. Leibnitz says that nothing exists in a vacuum, and this piece is no exception. It is a part of a traditional Esbat or Full Moon ritual first published in Janet and Stewart Farrar’s book Eight Sabbats for Witches, which has become a standard book to base ritual practice upon, especially Wiccan groups, because of the Farrar’s access to Gerald Gardner’s[i] own Book of Shadows. After creating sacred space, the High Priest helps the High Priestess to Draw Down the Moon, that is, to invoke the Goddess within the High Priestess. If all goes right, a shift in consciousness occurs, and the Priestess feels herself fill with divine energy and she allows the Goddess to speak through her, and what she says is “The Charge”. It begins with an invitation by the High Priest, usually, to “Listen to the words of the Great Mother” and reminds the listeners that the Goddess is known by “many other names[ii]”. The High Priestess is understood to become the Goddess, much as Catholics understand that consecrated wine becomes the blood of Christ.

At this point, “The Charge” ceases to become words on a page, but is a direct quotation of the Goddess manifest in her High Priestess. Sometimes the words come out differently, or with different emphasis, or are shortened or lengthened—all entirely depending upon the individual recitation or manifestation. Schrödinger reminds us, at this point, that much depends upon the observer: the personal experience of the listener depends very much on what they think they will get out of hearing “The Charge” spoken by an invoking Priestess. Whether it is moving or believable or not is entirely dependent upon the expectation of the listener. But having heard the words spoken, they cannot help but impact you some how, and you them. One author suggests “that the term observer fails to convey the new view of the relationship between reality and consciousness. [A Princeton physicist] offers participator as a more accurate replacement” (Broughton 356). In Wiccan philosophy, you only get out of a ritual what you put in, even if you have no pre-meditated part in the ritual: it is considered that your very presence and your personal, internal experience with the ritual is an expected contribution.

In an article by Ceisiwr Serith–a Pagan for over twenty years and a member of Arn Draiocht Fein, the nation’s largest Druid fellowship–he says “The Charge of the Goddess is the closest thing to scripture that Wicca possesses. Like scripture, it is used in rituals and to support beliefs. And like scripture, its origins are obscure” (Serith). Many publications do not even acknowledge the author. Doreen Valiente, a gifted poet and a student of Gerald Gardner, is generally accepted as the writer of this piece, and when she died in 1999, the copyright went to John Belham-Payne, who runs The Centre for Pagan Studies and was her working High Priest (Raeburn 194). But even armed with this knowledge, it still does not tell us much about this mysterious prose piece. Firstly, Valiente is rewriting it from Gardner’s Book of Shadows, making it much more eloquent. Secondly, “[one] thing that should be noticed is how little of this version cannot be traced to published sources. Except for the introduction, this version is essentially quotations linked with a small number of connecting phrases” (Serith). As you can see in Figure 1, the largest percentage of the word-count does belong to Valiente, and both she and Gardner pull lines from other “traditional” texts, which originate at different points in time, making it difficult to identify the “original” piece in time and space.

The author herself changes the content and form over time; especially after first writing an extremely unpopular poem that is awkward and clumsy in a ritual context. Then a prose piece was drafted and later changed to sound more archaic by adding “thou’s” and “ye’s”[iii]. And occasionally, when “The Charge” is reprinted, a writer might recall it from memory, having heard it at a ritual, or may change wording with which they disagree: “sorceries”, for example, is changed to “magic”, or Feminist undertones[iv] are added by reducing the role of the men.  The speaker of the poem even changes, as it begins with the High Priest who also speaks again at the middle. He reminds us that the Goddess is known by “Artemis, Astarte, Athena” and “by many other names” thus incorporating many individual voices simultaneously and speaking with all of them at once. One can see the influence of the various Goddesses in the speech to create a whole pan-theistic piece. But even this can change. In the Farrar’s account of the Esbat[v] ritual, they advise that, “If you have a local Goddess-name, by all means add it to the list. While we lived in county Wexford, we used to add Carman, a Wexford goddess…who gave the county and town their Gaelic name” (Farrar 42). This dislocates “The Charge of the Goddess” from space, giving permission to make one’s local area and its deities as important as those of the great civilizations of the past. Philosophically speaking, all Goddesses are one Goddess, or at least have the same level of importance, and whether their specialty is self-hood, fertility or wisdom, the Goddesses ultimately have the same message for humankind.

One can read “The Charge” as a revelatory text, much as one reads other sacred texts like the Quaran, the Bible, or the Bhagavad-Gita. That is, the text contains words directly from Deity which reveals their existence to humankind and explains what is expected and for what purpose. Graham Harvey, a Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies at King Alfred’s College examined the purpose of “The Charge”:

Two primary things are taught by the speaking, hearing and experiencing of the Charge. The first is that deity is experienced in the ordinary things of life—a woman speaking, the Earth and moon, food, drink, dancing, the human body, humour and music. While there is wisdom to be gained (this is how “sorcery” [or magic] in the Charge appears to be understood) and learning to be done, the Goddess does not require “faith”, “belief” or assent to doctrinal “truth”.

Harvey, 37

This is analogous to the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5:6-21 in which God reveals to Moses the new covenant with mankind, outlining what God had done for the Israelites by removing them from Egyptian slavery, and what they must do to keep his favor. Unlike the Wiccan Goddess, this God requires faith and obedience because, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Holy Bible: New International Version. Deuteronomy 5:9-10).

God reveals himself in a burning bush, through Angels, the prophet Mohammed, Jesus Christ, and by many other means. But Wiccans and Neo-Pagans have different experiences with deity: “in the Craft there are two main ways in which people relate to and envisage deity. The first is in the way they hear the words of various “Charges”, especially the “Charge of the Goddess”, a form of self-revelation by the deity manifest in a Priestess or female leader….Secondly, deity is manifest (expressed, revealed, experienced, touched, tasted, incarnate, sensed, represented, immanent) in Nature” (Harvey 36). Students of the Romantic Movement, Transcendentalism, and counter-culturalists the 1960’s will be familiar with these ideas, and Paganism has its roots in all of these cultural mores.

The concept that this physical world is divine is completely opposed to traditional Christian thinking and also Platonic ideas about the nature of the world. In long-established Platonic thinking, there is a hierarchy of existence: all things exist as perfection in the realm of unchanging Forms. For example, in the realm of Forms is the perfect Chair. It embodies everything that is Chair-ness. When a carpenter makes a chair, he makes a copy of that Chair which only has some of the qualities of perfect Chair-ness. If an artist paints a chair, his painting is a copy of a copy, thus lessening its perfection (Soccio 147).  “The Charge” says that “From Me all things proceed and unto Me they must return; and before my face, beloved of gods and men, thine innermost divine self shall be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.” Our “innermost” parts (such as our true selves or souls) are holy, but so are our actions as, “all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.” This includes our sexuality.

Platonic ideals have been expounded in Christianity in complete opposition to the Pagan philosophies in “The Charge”. In Christian theology, God is perfection (the realm of Forms, if you will) and is everything that is unknowable and good. He came down to Earth as Jesus of Nazareth. Thus we can see that the image of God is Man, proving what it says in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over…all the earth.” So humans understand what God looks like. A woman looks dissimilar to man and is a flawed copy of man—“Now I want you to realize that the head of every man in Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. …Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head…a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God” (NIV. 1Cor 3-7). For this reason, women of Abrahamic religions have traditionally been asked, or required, to wear a veil or hold a modest appearance. Yet it is man and woman together who have dominion over the animals. There is none of this Pauline hierarchy in Neo-Pagan thought. If our “innermost divine self” is intimately a part of the “rapture of the infinite” (which must surely include time and space), then there can be nothing above or below or separate about this life and existence. Men and Women are equal in importance, and women are not required to be modest or wear a veil. This is further supported in “The Charge” in that “you shall be naked in your rites”.

Moreover, the current notions of time and space of Christians in particular have been mused over by philosophers and great minds and recorded in detail. Augustine, who is completely immersed in Christian and Platonic ideology, came to the conclusion that “There was no time, therefore, when thou [God] hadst not made anything, because thou hadst made time itself. And there are no times that are coeternal with thee, because though dost abide forever; but if times should abide, they would not be times” (Congdon 97). In other words, God made time, but is outside of it because he created it. If he were in time, he would not be God because that would mean that he was created by something else. Augustine is also agreeing with the Greek philosopher Parmenides, who came to the conclusion that “only One thing can possibly exist and that this One Thing is uncreated, unchangeable, indestructible, and immovable[vi]” (23). His realization works well for Plato’s argument. For Augustine, platonic ideas and Christianity are very compatible and his writing has influenced priests, popes and intellectuals ever since.

While it is unclear if Doreen Valiente was familiar with Augustinian ideas of time and space, it is certain that she had her own ideas about the world. She recalls her enchanted childhood that stayed with her long after others grew out of it: “I saw what people would call the world of everyday reality as unreal, and saw behind it something that was real and very potent.  I saw the world of force behind the world of form” (Knowles). One can only guess at her familiarity with the concept of Platonic forms, though she certainly was well read, and spent her childhood with very religious parents, who sent her to Catholic school when she was fifteen (Knowles). It is possible that she learned (though ultimately rejected) the doctrines of Christianity with their historical contexts and implications during that time. What is clear is that the physics of “The Charge of the Goddess” are strikingly like our modern notions of physics, and rather un-like the pragmatic understanding of old-world empiricists.

If we were to compare the two religions–Christianity and Wicca–to science, then Christianity and its scripture seems to epitomize Newtonian time, while the liturgy and philosophies of Wicca are much closer to the newer notions of Einsteinian time and quantum mechanics. That Christianity and Newton are related is no surprise, for the development of empiricism occurred when Christianity was the only acceptable philosophical doctrine in the West. Isaac Newton came to the same conclusion that Plato did: “Absolute space, in its own nature, without relation to anything external, remains always similar and immovable” (Congdon 122). He also agrees with Augustine, although, like a good scientist, Newton takes out any notions of God, “Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external[vii]” (122). For Newton, time and space exist as surely as Plato’s Forms exist, and all things in life can be measured by and of them. Although time and space exist independently of human beings, they can be understood to work like a machine, in a linear fashion and continuously pressing forward.

This linear movement of time is demonstrated in Christianity with the beliefs surrounding death[viii]. Human beings, created by God, ate of the Tree of Knowledge, and God cursed them saying “By the sweat of your brow/you will eat your food/until you return to the ground, /since from it you were taken; /for dust you are/and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19). Upon death, you are judged according to your actions in life. If you’ve accepted Jesus as your savior, you are forgiven of your sins and may enter heaven to be among the Saints and God for all eternity. There is a beginning (creation) but no end. You can view time as an arrow which goes ever forward. It’s industrial, progressive, and does not take time to reflect or consider its actions. If an opportunity passes, it is too late to go back. Similarly, a human has only this one life to be judged upon when they die, and so the short while on earth dictates the rest of eternity. It makes missionaries zealous for converts as they go out to save others from a horrid eternity without God. God himself is actually outside overseeing the entire arrow of time (according to Augustine). The arrow is predestined. This is seen in the holy scriptures of Christianity. Throughout the Old Testament, prophecies are made about the Messiah which all seem to come true in the New Testament: John 19:24 is a prophecy of Psalm 22:18 which reads “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” In the book of John, guards strip Jesus of his clothing and attempt to decide who will get what piece by basically drawing straws.

Empirical science is built linearly as well: you begin with the Scientific Method (thank Sir Francis Bacon and co.), create and test hypothesis, and publish your findings, which contribute to the bank of knowledge. Science progresses forwards. It also predicts itself by forming and understanding laws of nature and the universe and in some way shares the omniscience that God holds. Scientists or natural philosophers do not concern themselves with topics that are considered religious or superstitious, as those things are of the past. Similarly, the ideas of specific scientists come and then pass on into history: this explains why nobody studies Albertus Magnus anymore.

The physics of Wicca, however, do not have an “arrow of time” conception. In “The Charge of the Goddess”, the invoked priestess says “from me all things proceed, and unto me all things must return”. It is this circular notion that is the basis of Neo-Pagan thought. One expert notes “Pagans do not sit in neat rows facing an altar or pulpit in their ceremonies or gatherings. They form circles which speak eloquently about the way Pagans understand themselves” (Harvey 43). Rather than time marching forward unchangeably, time repeats itself, but it also progresses[ix]. The basis of time is the Wheel of the Year, which follows the physical cycles of the season and marks the solar calendar, but it is also ritually symbolic of the life of a human being that is reflected in the stories of the Goddess and God.

Each year, at the Winter Solstice, the Goddess gives birth to the God, who is the driving force behind the growing world. He is represented by the sun. At Summer Solstice, the God sacrifices himself and loses power until he is reborn the following Winter Solstice. There are other stories and lore surrounding the festivals, depending upon the tradition. A majority of Pagans, over 75%, believe in reincarnation[x], compared to only 25% of the rest of the American public (Berger 47). Wiccans believe there is a period of rest after death, but that ultimately you are reborn to live another life, learn lessons, and receive the consequences of your actions as Karma. In “The Charge”, the Goddess says, “mine is the cup of the wine of life, and the Cauldron of Cerridwen, which is the Holy Grail of immortality[xi]…” The Goddess is both the paradoxical granter of death and sustainer of life, but she also inundates the world and all its inhabitants with her presence.

Indeed, in “The Charge” everything exists equally and in connection to everything, including the Goddess, who is embodied within the priestess saying the words, within the words themselves, and within the world around us. Yet, “The Charge” also says that She, in her guise as the Star Goddess, is so large that the “dust of Whose feet are the hosts of heaven, whose body encircles the universe.” The tiniest particles of dust make up the cosmos and stars, which is remarkably similar to the Big Bang theory of the formation of the universe. But “The Charge” also implies that the cosmos must be limited; else there would be nothing for her body to encircle. Or perhaps it is a paradox, implying that the Goddess is infinite and encircles the universe by being immanent within the universe. Figuring this out is part of the mystery, which must be examined individually, and so varies from practitioner to practitioner. Doreen reminds Wiccans that,

The initiates of the ancient pagan Mysteries were taught to say ‘I am the child of earth and Starry Heaven and there is no part of me that is not of the Gods’.  If we in our own day believe this, then we will not only see it as true of ourselves, but of other people also.…because it seemed to me, and still does, that as witches, pagans or whatever we choose to call ourselves, the things which unite us are more important than the things which divide us.

Knowles

Quantum physics also shows that the world, or at least subatomic particles, are connected by unseen forces, and split particles light-years away are still impacted by what happens to their twin[xii] (Broughton 334). Not only that, but the atoms can be affected by the human mind (335). All things exist as possibility before they exist as a reality chosen, or at least affected, by the observer. This is very similar to the way the world is understood to be connected as revealed in “The Charge”. Quantum physics is a complicated subject which is much too smart for most of us, but many Pagans understand it another way: magick[xiii]. Magick is the act of changing reality or consciousness according to Will (Harvey 48). It is with this knowledge of magick that they seek to influence and change events in an undetermined future, a future based upon our human will, not the will of an omnipresent, but separate, God.

But Wicca has other roots[xiv]. Science is organized knowledge, but the occult is that which is hidden or known to only a few (Bonewits 261). The study of the occult has existed alongside, yet outside, of the scientific community for almost as long as science has been organized. But Isaac Bonewits, America’s first academically accredited magician, reminds us that:

this definition of ‘occultism’ is just a bit too broad. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is said to be understood completely by less than twenty people in the world, but most people would not consider it a part of occultism. Bits and pieces from a hundred disciplines and areas of study float around within the realm of occultism. Occasionally some of them interlock into patterns that we call magic, mysticism, philosophy, religion, metaphysics, mythology, phenomenology, and a dozen other things (including superstition, fraud, and ignorance).

Bonewits 24

Wiccans and other Neo-Pagans today still practice magick that is rooted in this occult lore, but scientists have begun to study it more carefully in the last hundred years, creating the field of parapsychology. Although extremely controversial and apologetic, the fields are once again merging, and scientists are catching up with the occult knowledge practiced by Neo-Pagans, especially in the realm of quantum physics.

Although magick is a highly stigmatized part of Neo-Pagan practices, it is a part of the religiosity and expression for many Pagans, and the application contributes to a Pagan understanding of the physical world. For those working in a post-Platonic, Christian world, it is hard to recognize something beyond the realm of Western science as valid. Magick is:

A general term for arts, sciences, philosophies and technologies concerned with (a) understanding and using altered states of consciousness within which it is possible to have access to and control over one’s physical talents, and (b) the uses and abuses of those psychic talents to change interior and/or exterior realities.

Bonewits 211

These practices include (but are not limited to) spells, charms and talismans to make someone love you, to make money, to cause someone harm, or any other focused purpose. In the linear, Newtonian science in which everything is concretely understood; magick flies in the face of rational logic. But in the relative world of Einsteinian science and quantum physics, what one does, magickal or otherwise, has a valid effect on the world and the individual. Magick has its own rules and laws, some very similar to science. These laws are more philosophical, requiring personal development on the part of the magician in addition to his belief in the magick he is performing. There are many laws, but some of them include: The Law of Knowledge which states that knowledge is power, The Law of Similarity states that things that look alike are alike, and The Law of Synthesis which states that the union of opposite ideas or data will produce some new data. (Bonewits 3-9). Like science, magickal knowledge builds up as contributions are made by magicians. Many of these laws date back hundreds, even thousands of years: it was Aristotle who said “know thyself”, and anthropologists have recently “discovered” that cave paintings and ritual tools found in pre-agricultural settlements adhere to The Law of Similarity[xv]. Quantum physics can now prove that the law “Know Thyself” has a direct and noticeable effect on subatomic particles. Magick uses and operates under the laws of quantum physics:

It should be noted that there are three main questions that have to be dealt with when one is attempting to define magic. The first is that of what the magician thinks she or he is doing when performing a magical act. The second is that of what the magician may “actually” be doing in some hypothetical “objective” reality. The third is that of what outside observers, qualified or unqualified (and always biased) may perceive or theorize the magician to be doing.

Bonewits 211

The observer of a spell cannot know what the magician is doing, unless they are well versed in occult symbolism, or have spoken to the magician. The magician might change his actions if an observer is watching, which might change the spell in a Newtonian “objective” reality. If the spell does not work, the magician might think he did the spell incorrectly, or didn’t desire the outcome enough, or believe that the presence of the observer changed the result of his magick. The observer might think the magician superstitious and foolish. Which reality is correct? Quantum physics says that the reality of a particle does not exist, except as possibility, until the observer observes it—the observer does indeed become a participator as their expectations, cultural mores and assumptions color their observation and thus their participation. Ultimately, “It seems that parapsychologists and physicists, traveling down two different roads, have arrived at the same place” (Broughton 357).

One of the best examples of the reality of our thoughts on the world came with the recently publicized findings of water researcher Masaru Emoto. What started out as an attempt to photograph water crystals turned into an exciting phenomenon which both shows magick in action, and the reality of quantum physics, in a way that the general public can understand and resonate with. He and his team of researchers found that water that was polluted or was exposed to negative words (in any language) would not produce neat water crystals when frozen. But water shown positive words such as “thank you” or “happiness” would form beautiful, balanced crystals. He notes that “if water collects information and its crystals reflect those characteristics, it means that the quality of water changes based on the information it receives. In other words, the information we give to water changes its quality” (12). More testing must be done by other scientists to verify his findings. Magicians, Wiccans and Neo-Pagans, on the other hand, already understand and believe what he’s talking about, as it both resonates with Magickal Laws and the fulfillment from “The Charge” when the Goddess says, “you who are fain to learn all magic but have not yet won its deepest secrets: to these I will teach things that are yet unknown.”

When Doreen Valiente recalled writing “The Charge of the Goddess”, she declared that “just for a moment I had experienced what was beyond the physical.  It was beautiful, wonderful, it wasn’t frightening.  That, I think, shaped my life a lot”. But whether you see her experience as the result of her own expectations and a cultural tradition more closely related to the new Einsteinian science and quantum physics, or you view it as a direct result of an omnipotent deity in a Newtonian, logical, mechanical world—says more about your own cultural mores and expectations than about the validity of “The Charge”. Either way, you prove quantum physics right. It will be interesting to see how science and parapsychology begin to merge under the new quantum physics. It makes us wonder about our own worldview, with its intimate relation to religion and liturgy, and how it changes as the understanding of science and the universe changes.

Charge of the Goddess

from Blacksun’s Esbat ritual, adapted from Doreen Valiente.

Listen to the words of the Great Mother, She who of old was called among men Artemis, Astarte, Athena, Diana, Melusine, Keridwen, Danu, Arianrhod, Isis, Brighid, and many other names.

Whenever you have need of anything, once in the month, and better it be when the moon is full, then shall you assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of Me, who am Queen of all. There shall you assemble, you who are fain to learn all magic but have not yet won its deepest secrets: to these I will teach things that are yet unknown.  You shall be free from slavery; and as a sign that you be truly free, you shall be naked in your rites; and you shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love, all in My praise. For Mine is the ecstasy of the spirit, and Mine also is joy on earth; for My law is love unto all things.

Keep pure your highest ideal.  Strive ever towards it; let naught stop you or turn you aside.  For Mine is the secret door which opens upon the Land of Youth, and Mine is the cup of the wine of life, the Cauldron of Keridwen, which is the Holy Grail of Immortality.

I am the gracious Goddess who gives the gift of joy unto the hearts of all.  Upon earth, I give knowledge of the spirit eternal; and after death I give peace and freedom, and reunion with those who have gone before.  Nor do I demand sacrifice.  For behold, I am the Mother of all living, and My love is poured out upon the earth.

Hear now the words of the Star Goddess, the dust of Whose feet are the hosts of heaven, whose body encircles the universe:

I who am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon amongst the stars, the mysteries of the waters, and the desire in the hearts of all, I call upon your souls to arise and come unto Me; for I am the soul of Nature that gives life to the universe.  From Me all things proceed and unto Me they must return; and before My face, beloved of gods and men, thine innermost divine self shall be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.  Let My worship be in the heart that rejoices; for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.  Let there be beauty and strength, power and compassion, honour and humility, mirth and reverence within you.

And you who seek to know Me, know that your seeking and yearning will avail you not, unless you know the Mystery: for if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.  For behold, I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.

Bibliography

Berger, Helen, Evan A. Leach, Leigh S. Shaffer. Voices From the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States. University of South Carolina Press. 2003.

Blacksun & Shadowhawk. The Spell of Making and Be ALL! The Book of Pagan Spirituality. ATC e-book special edition.

Bonewits, Philip Emmons Isaac. Real Magic: An Introductory Treatise on the Basic Principles of Yellow Magic (Revised Edition). Weiser Books. 1971

Broughton, Richard S. Parapsychology: The Controversial Science. Ballantine Books, New York. 1991.

Congdon, Howard K. ed. Philosophies of Space and Time. University Press of America. 2003.  Quoting Augustine. Confessions and Enchiridion. “What Then is Time?”

Emoto, Masaru. The True Power of Water. Atria Books. Beyond Words Publishing. 2003. Noriko Hosoyamada, trans.

Farrar, Janet and Stewart. A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook. Phoenix Publishing. 1981.

Holy Bible: New International Version. International Bible Society. 1973.

Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York University Press. 1997

Knowles, George. “Doreen Valiente” http://www.controverscial.com/Doreen%20Valiente.htm

Raeburn, Jane, ed. The Pagan’s Muse: Words of Ritual, Invocation, and Inspiration. Citadel Press. 2003

Serith, Ceisiwr. “The Sources of the Charge of the Goddess”. 2003.

http://www.ceisiwrserith.com/wicca/charge.htm

Smart, Roderick Ninian. The Religious Experience of Mankind, “Religion and Human Experience”. Prentice-Hall. 1976.

Soccio, Helon. Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. 4th Edition. Thomson Learning. 2001.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. 10th anniversary Edition. Harper San Francisco. 1989.

Endnotes


[i] Gardner is understood to be the founder of Wicca after his publication of Witchcraft Today in 1954, though few Wiccans these days are strict followers of his teachings.

[ii] It is difficult to cite “The Charge of the Goddess” as it has been reprinted and changed so many times and there is no authoritative edition. To further complicate matters, the line breaks change, varying from paragraphs to blocks to couplets, making it impossible to count lines. The edition I’m quoting is extrapolated from the Esbat ritual by Blacksun, a less archaic rendition from Farrar’s The Witches Bible, pgs 42-44, who get their authority directly from Valiente. It is in the bibliography for your convenience.

[iii] As is one “authoritative” version by the Farrars.

[iv] Especially Starhawk, a noted writer. Her most recognized and celebrated work is The Spiral Dance.

[v] This is a ritual which is held at during a Full Moon, when the power of the Goddess is considered to be at its peak.

[vi] But it’s fascinating to note that Parmenides believed he was getting his information directly from a Goddess, not from his own use of logic.

[vii] This is also his argument against relativity.

[viii] I must admit that, as a Wiccan, my understanding of Christianity is generalized rather than specialized, and I haven’t yet done the kind of research to support more than what, I believe, is a mainstream knowledge of Christian doctrine, having not grown up Christian myself.

[ix] Perhaps a better metaphor would be a spiral, which repeats itself but has some progression. The problem we run into is finding out where it is progressing to and what is repeated or lost each time.

[x] There are few central ideas, if any, that all Pagans believe. Part of it has to do with the inherent individuality of the religion, but also due to the different histories of the various groups. It is understood that no one can tell you if you are or aren’t Pagan. Therefore, when one calls themselves a Pagan, what they believe is automatically denoted Pagan, even if it doesn’t agree with the majority. One joke in the movement is that if you put 4 Pagans in a room, you’ll end up with 5 differing opinions on any given topic.

[xi] The Cauldron of Cerridwen, a Welsh Goddess, grants wisdom and rebirth to those who seek it. The Welsh believed that the souls of the dead go into the cauldron until they are ready to be reborn.

[xii] In theory, at least. The math says it is so.

[xiii] Sometimes spelled with a ‘k’ as in ‘magick’. This is to differentiate between stage illusion and magick as practiced by Witches. This change began in the early 1900’s when Aliester Crowley the occultist began using it this way. His writings were extremely influential in the Pagan community, and I use his spelling for the same reason he does. Bonewits, an American scholar, does not differentiate, and I’ve retained his spelling in his quotations.

[xiv] Wicca has roots in the works of Aliester Crowley, a famous Edwardian occultist, Freemasonry and Alchemy. Unfortunately, the history of Wicca goes beyond the scope of this paper.

[xv] Bonewits and others have pointed out that it was Sir James Frazer in 1890 who really isolated these laws, but his writings were too unscientific to be accepted by anthropologists (5).

No. The Gods Are Not Punishing Haiti.

January 21, 2010 1 comment

One face of many, this boy already lived in slums, but now he doesn't even have that.

The earthquake in Haiti was a horrible tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people were lost as their buildings fell down upon them or the earth swollowed them up. The recent aftershock compounded the problems, as aid workers had only just begun to give the Haitians the help they so desperately need. You would have to have a heart made of stone not to feel compassion for these people. They’ve been reduced to a first world country.

What stings me the most is the reaction that some people have had. As usual, I’m disgusted by Pat Robertson’s take on the whole thing. He said a whole nation of people made a pact with the devil to get the French occupation out of their country. Umm wtf, Pat? Can you maybe cite your source? Thank goodness we Pagans don’t have that kind of shortsightedness, right?

In one of the message board forums I follow, a colleague was lamenting that she heard some folks saying that the earthquake was Gaia “shrugging off some fleas”. (I apologize for not being able to provide a more direct citation. If you find one in the wilds of the internet, please feel free to post it here.) There are two major problems I see with this statement: 1) that all human beings are a plague on this planet and are as insignificant and bothersome as insects, and 2) Haitians (read: black people) are as insignificant as insects.

Can this statement be interpreted other ways? Perhaps, but I don’t think any of them are positive or good. I have a big problem with the “humans are a virus” theory. It suggests that the Gods do not love us, when obviously that is not true. I believe they would not interact with us, talk to us, help us on our paths etc if they did not love us. Gaia is the spirit of the earth, and she loves all human beings, and all other beings on this planet–even fleas. The consciousness of our home planet is bit enough to encompass us all in her cycles of life and death. In Wiccan theology, the Goddess stands eternal while the Horned one gives of himself yearly so that others may live. Yet he is conceived in love and reborn. This love and generosity is not limited to people of one belief, race or nation, no matter how Pat Robertson tries to spin it. The Earth supplies bounty or starvation for every single creature. Even rocks have a life-cycle.

We don’t know why some places or people seem to suffer more than others. I’m reminded of the tower card in the tarot. Some folks think the worst card is the Death card, but I think it is the Tower (and so do these folks). It is fire, sudden and instant destruction, but the good news is that it allows you to rebuild. It forces you to take stock of what you have, and see what is still valuable in the new world. This earthquake asks the rest of the world how they will respond to those less fortunate than they are, and we are responding in spades. Like the Tower, what seems catastrophic can have some good effects, and we humans should not be so short-sighted as to see only the destruction. Gaia and the Gods see the whole spectrum of possibility and being, even if we can’t. Look at the way, even now, the tragedy is being transformed into good for the most amount of people.

So let’s stop with that kind of anti-human negativity, and stop trying to interpret the will of the Gods. Magically, like attracts like, and isn’t there enough tragedy and suffering in the world? Witches transform. So let’s get to work. Please consider donating money to help.

O Gods of all nations and all peoples, unite!

Show your people that the essence of

all that is truly spiritual is to live life to its fullest;

that what is true for one people is true for all;

that it is our duty as spiritual people

to encourage peace for all;

that to live between the fullness of love

and the emptiness of contentment is to live in peace.

For only in peace can we praise and worship.

God of light reveal to us this truth within us.

Goddess of love, show us how to live together.

Child of life, give us the courage to live in peace

Now and forever.

(pg 73. “Dewdrops in the Moonlight: A Book of Pagan Prayer” by Shanddaramon.)

Who To Pray To

January 12, 2010 5 comments

Dear Witchful Thinking,

So I’ve heard that Pagans pray and all, but who should I pray to and how should I do it? Or should I? Do Pagans actually pray? Is it different from how Christians pray?

Shruggingly,

Haven’t Got A Prayer

Dear Haven’t,

Prayer is a touchy subject for many Pagans. I suspect that many people are escaping from religion in which prayer was a dominating force, so they associate it too much with the old ways. Indeed, when I hear of people in trouble and needing energy, my first reaction is to light a candle for them, not to get on my knees and pray.

That being said, I think prayer is making a resurgence in individual practice. I believe this because of the seemingly sudden appearance of a few books on the subject including Dewdrops in the Moonlight, A Book of Pagan Prayer, etc. Additionally, the idea of Pagan rosaries or Prayer Beads is making a move in the mainstream culture. Personally, I have three sets of prayer beads, one for Hekate, Athena, and one reciting the Charge of the Goddess as a way to study.

Prayer is talking heart-to-heart with the Divine. Most often, it is because you want or need something, and want to make Spirit aware of it. Many Pagans consider spellcasting an artful prayer. But prayer is a request, and for a spell to be successful, it must be willed and forceful.

How Christians Pray

  • Christian doctrine teaches that it is important to put your desires in Gods hands.
  • Christians pray for forgiveness of their sins and that of those they love. There is no such request in Pagan prayer. 
  • For the most part, Christians pray through someone else. My LDS grandmother prays “in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, Amen”. Catholics pray through Mary or a variety of Saints. However, many newer Evangelical denominations will pray directly to God.
  • Prayer is for worship and reverence of God.
  • Christians do not expect an answer.

The difference between Christian prayer and Pagan prayer is this: Pagans are expected to meet the Gods part way. You know that in spellcraft you have to do something real to manifest it. For example, I want to get a book published, so I do a spell for that, and then I send in an excellent proposal, check up on it, and make connections with people who can help me. I will also pray about it because I want the Gods to know that I want it.

And then, lucky for us, our Gods talk back to us. It is a two way street. We can use divination to understand how to manifest our prayers. Some people hear answers when they pray, or meet the Gods on the Astral levels in meditation and talk with them. I think, most often, the Gods talk to us through signs and omens. At a very low point in my life, I needed a real answer. I begged the Goddess to “give me a sign” that I should go through with a life-changing event. Within three days, I had my answer. I was on the bus that was driving through campus, and in the lawn there were some students with signs, and the only one that I could read said “This Is A Sign”. The answer was pretty obvious to me!

Who should you pray to? You should pray to whomever you are called to. You can pray to the God or the Goddess, or both. Sometimes when I pray, I simply address the Universe. You can pray to plants or animals, or any deity that strikes you. Try to address the one you believe will be best able to help you. Don’t ask Apollo to help you through the snow. Try Thor instead. Sedna can’t help you with your math homework, but Athena would be glad to give it a go with you. That kind of thing. Pray to someone with whom you have a relationship. If you can pray in a way that is appropriate for the culture of that diety, so much the better. I once prayed to Hekate in Greek (albiet very bad Greek…) and lemme tell you, I had her absolute full attention–too much attention, if you ask me!

There are many good sites and books that have prayers and words of worship. You can use one of these if you are stuck and don’t know what to say. It is nice to have a poetic prayer memorized. Using a rosary or prayer beads can help you accomplish that.

Above all, make your prayer heartfelt and honest. It doesn’t matter if you bow your head or address the sky, or keep your eyes opened or closed. And honestly, I don’t think it matters who you really pray to because the Universe is always listening and interacting with us. Our goal is to understand and become part of that sacred dialogue.

Why Christianity Is Not Working 2

December 23, 2009 2 comments

Effects of Modernism and Postmodernism

One can see in the art and literature the trends of a culture, and I think the biggest challenge for Biblical preaching is modernism and postmodernism. Indeed one can hardly have one without the other. Rabbi David Lapin describes modernism correctly as the automatic rejection of “old” ideas, “Modernism is the odd notion that mankind should view revolutionary change as inherently good. It is the views that, almost by definition, modifying today’s society will produce a better tomorrow” (Lapin 1999). This bodes well for our economy, as old things are discarded to make room for new products and commodities, but it rejects the notion that anything could be learned from the past. Ironically modernism was perhaps at its height during the 50’s and 60’s (a time that many cultural critics hearken back to nostalgically), when schools and education were being reformed in the destructive ways mentioned earlier in this essay. When modernism becomes consumerism, it starves the soul. If ideas about spirituality are consumed in the process, nothing takes root. The focus is on quantity, not quality; on breadth, not depth. There is no space for reflection, let alone application. Listeners at a sermon might react with “I’ve heard it before! What’s next?”

Consumerism feeds the natural human desire for instant gratification. But while our ancestors worked long and hard to grow food, and sat down to enjoy the evening meal with the family; our culture has given us fast food. Lapin reflects on this: “The rapid growth of fast food, however, conditioned us to the notion that anytime and anywhere is suitable for a snack or meal….Or national personality was shifting. We became more self-indulgent and less disciplined; more attuned to immediate gratification than to what was best of the long-term” (1999). Technology may have made life easier, but our problems are more complex than ever because of it. We expect fast, easy solutions. We expect to sort through things to find what is relevant, we are taught to weed through data to find answers that apply to our lives. Our culture isn’t looking for truth, because the truth isn’t always easy.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, goes beyond that. Quoting the neoconservatism philosopher “Irving Kristol defines ‘postmodern art’ as a ‘politically charged art that is utterly contemptuous of the notion of educating the tastes and refining the aesthetic sensibilities of the citizenry. Its goal, instead, is deliberately to outrage those tastes and to trash the very idea of an aesthetic sensibility’” (Medved, 1992). This is, perhaps, where the anti-moral filth in Hollywood comes from. Its purpose is to offend and shock.

But there is more to postmodernism than that. It is a reaction to everything that has come before. Americans may not remember well their own history, and modernism may have us ripping down buildings that have not had a chance to become historic, but Americans remember atrocities. One need only look at World Wars I and II, and lament with T.S. Elliot in The Waste Land to illustrate this point. I work at a private school in Bellevue, with students from all walks of life, where I co-teach a class about art, culture, and contemporary society. These kids cannot understand what is so miraculous about a Jackson Pollack painting. They do not see the genius of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. They figure you could just take a picture of something if you wanted it to look real. They miss the art because they have seen just about everything. Only the most atrocious and abominable images get any reaction to it. They aren’t trained to see the subtlety of brushstrokes, or understand the religious symbolism, or understand the suffering by the artist to create beauty. And why should they, when Pollack has been highly copied, and you can get Michelangelo’s “Hand of God” printed on a t-shirt? They know that art is supposed to move them, but it takes a lot to do so.

For Biblical preachers, their duty becomes more difficult as people in our culture turn against the methods for the very same reason they turn against modern art. They see traditional things as threatening and cling to science for truth. The professional atheist Dawkins argues with religionists saying that “of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design). Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this [a book about atheism], which is surely a work of Satan” (2006). As a member of this culture, it is difficult to turn away from the many accomplished and important people who have publicly turned away from faith. The inventor of the new physics Einstein has said “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever. This is a somewhat new kind of religion…The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naïve” (as quoted in Dawkins, 2006).

Kids These Days

One author declared that “If there is a moral movement in each generation, we need to know the direction and the velocity of the movement. This helps us understand what tomorrow might look like, and it helps us decide whether we welcome that particular vision of tomorrow for our children” (Lapin, 1999). I am here to tell you: the future for Biblical preaching ain’t pretty. Being receptive to Biblical preaching requires a certain thinking paradigm which does not mesh with our current culture.

For the high school students at the school I work for, these students come from non-religious families that celebrate secular holidays and mostly pay lip-service to Christianity. Of the twenty-five or so kids I work with on a regular basis, only one identifies herself as Christian, and could find her way around a Bible. Others claim to be “spiritual, but not religious” as if they are afraid of the very word. There is very little that moves them, except for intolerance. They are politically and socially moderate, only advocating change if it seems like it will work quickly, and won’t trample on anybody’s freedom of speech or expression. They are terrified of somebody telling them what to think, yet are generally obedient to authority. There is a general lethargy to their generation: they would rather play video games than work, they are barely able to imagine their own futures, and they absolutely do not believe they can have any impact on the world. It is hard to say how much we must explain this with simple adolescent development, and how much is due to the culture they are indoctrinated into.

As a teacher, I was taught to avoid religious topics whenever possible, unless I wanted to cover all religions equally, in an academic manner. Teachers are to avoid sharing their religion with their students, which means they are not permitted to be a role model in this area. While there is a general expectation that teachers will have Christian values, they are not allowed to share them, or talk to students about how morals are shaped. Apparently, in order to create a society that has certain freedoms, those liberties are not extended to the very people responsible for passing them on.

What is Needed

To be receptive to Biblical preaching, one must have a belief that some things are absolute and true. Christians find this truth in the Bible, which contains God’s truth, His plan, and His expectations of us. Indeed, true Christians believe that “the words of the Bible are inspired of God. Divine inspiration has rendered the Bible infallible….The inspired Book is inerrant” (Holland, 1998). But our culture of secularism has taught us to look to science for answers, and to look to our subjective experiences to reason out what is true for us as individuals. This goes against the idea that Biblical preaching is for everyone.

To be receptive to Biblical preaching, one must also have a fear of the unknown. The Bible contains answers to the unknown by offering salvation through Jesus Christ. But American culture is based so much on instant gratification, especially through information, that I doubt people worry much about what is unknown. They can read about what other cultures believe, and they can look to science for answers (the answers of which, to me, seems quite soul-less and depressing!). The information is so overwhelming, that it is easy to just assume that someone somewhere knows the answer, and to give up looking for one’s self. Or one might adopt an answer they have read because it “makes reasonable sense” to them at the time, without regard for any objective truth. Good Christians know that “Salvation, either present, or future, is dependent upon a knowledge of and obedience to the Word of God” (Holland, 1967).

Ultimately, “popular culture…is a man-made product, generated by a surprisingly small community of vulnerable and insecure human beings. That community has reconsidered its values and modified its priorities several times in the past, and future changes are not only possible, they are inevitable” (Medved, 1992). The question is, how can Biblical preachers contend with this? How can they—or should they—change to meet the needs of their congregation living under a new paradigm?

There is much to contend with! It is clear that these paradigms do not fit together. While that is not to say that Biblical preaching is irrelevant, preachers must be aware of what they are working against, and do what is in the scope of their power and experience to create change. To reach this generation, the preacher to be aware of their real problems and offer comfort and real answers, not fear, prejudice and damnation. Appealing to the emotions of  the congregation by scaring them into baptism is not going to work. Rather, the preacher must find the truth as he or she knows it, and make it relevant. They need to re-teach, and coax the starving soul back to health.

Bibliography

Bloom, A (1987). The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dawkins, R (2006). The God Delusion. New York, New York: Bantam Press.

Goodreads, Inc, (2009). Quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Retrieved July 23, 2009, from Goodreads Web site: http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/show/38442

Holland, T (1998). Preaching: Principles and Practice. Brentwood, Tennessee: Penmann Books.

Holland, T. (1967). Sermon Design and Delivery. Shreveport, LA: Gussie Lambert Publications.

Lapin, D (1999). America’s Real War: An Orthodox Rabbi Insists that Judeo-Christian Values are Vital for our Nation’s Survival. Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, Inc..

Medved, M. (1992). Hollywod vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

Why Christianity Is Not Working

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

This is a paper I wrote for a class on Biblical Preaching. Why is a Wiccan in such a class? Well I had this fantasy that I was going to become an Army Chaplain, which requires a lot of religious classes. The professor was a fundamentalist, but claimed to be open to our spiritual values. As someone who doesn’t believe in Biblical preaching, it was a hard class to be in. But I thought it might interest you. Why do you think preaching doesn’t work in our society these days?

Cultural Trends and its Effect on Disillusionment with Preaching (part 1)

Every generation looks at their children and wonders where it all went so wrong. Parents worry about their kids listening to rock and roll, wearing torn and baggy clothes, and the language that comes out of their mouths. Kids these days seem so disrespectful! Adults tell themselves it certainly was not like that when they were young. Religion in particular has gone through some changes as the culture changes. It used to be that religion defined culture, and unified Americans as they set out on the great experiment called democracy. But times are changing. Our valued culture is slipping. Even some experts are starting to agree. Rabbi David Lapin declared,  “I believe America is in decline—not compared to five or ten years ago, but when compared to the years following World War II until the early sixties….Americans remain unaware of, or indifferent to America’s decline” (Lapin, 1999).

There is a battle going on between the left and right, old and young, Christian and other religions. The problem is the culture in America as a whole is challenging the relevance of preaching. One hundred years ago, the Bible was the standard classroom text, studied in rural and urban school houses all across the country. Now you can scarcely find a Bible in a school library. The focus is on secularism, and our culture has generally become anti-religious. The new generation of Americans “have come to feel that religious America poses the real threat to our continuity, so they instinctively migrate to the end of the rope opposite from religious conservatives. Although not committed to every nuance of secularism, they consider it the lesser of two evils and lend their not inconsiderable weight to the left of the rope” (Lapin, 1999).

Where do these ideas come from? They are imbedded in our own culture; the way we educate our children, the media and entertainment that permeates our society, in new religious movements and evolving concepts of what it means to be an American. Post-modernism and Consumerism has changed American culture forever, leaving religion behind. The effect the culture has had on our nation’s children is becoming more obvious as traditional values slip away. Paradigms shift, but the beliefs necessary to relate to Biblical preaching have not. The seeds of Christianity through sermonism fall on fallow ground.

The “New” Education

These ideas perhaps begin in the way we educate our children. Education now focuses heavily on awareness of multiculturalism. Instead of reading Milton and Augustine, they read Maya Angelou and Sherman Alexie. It may sound an atrocity to set aside the great literature of the past, but “the purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue—openness” (Bloom, 1987). This “openness” is intended to create a society that welcomes all people, regardless of race or religion, but it also creates subjectivism. Each identity is voiced individually, but very little is shared. This type of education goes beyond the classroom: “People sup together, play together, travel together, but they do not think together. Hardly any homes have any intellectual life whatsoever, let alone one that informs the vital interests of life” (Bloom, 1987).

Instead, our schools promote a secular education, where religion of any kind, whether mainstream or not, is neither taught nor considered. Rather, the student learns to worship science and reason. Passion is removed. Students who prefer a Creationist, rather than Evolutionary, belief are ridiculed by teachers and peers alike. For the sake of openness, no religious ideas are taught or publicly tolerated in the classroom. One critic suggests that in education, “there is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything. But when there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible” (Bloom, 1987)? The social contract of openness and tolerance for differences does not give students a sense of shared identity as Americans. With no shared values, how are we to get along?

With regards to Biblical preaching, this type of education has students looking broadly across many religions and cultures, rather than deeply into their own. Secular education teaches an avoidance of religion, and an avoidance of one source for truth, effectively negating the potential power of the Bible for these students. Students are more aware of other religions than ever before, and the church itself is so fractured in denominationism that youth are overloaded with outside information. The simple days of growing up in one church with the family your whole life—those days are long gone. People now, literally, shop for religion. Their education in subjectivism allows them to choose their religious beliefs, rather than being told what is true.

“Hollywood vs. America”

Another problems lies in the media and entertainment which permeates our culture. The value of openness has spread to the availability of information. Now juicy items such as scandals in the church quickly become public news for the whole world to judge and comment about, without proper context. The horror of war is splayed across the nightly news. The media talks about everything without thought to decency or relevancy, and every atrocity is beamed into the living room with no thought of the consequences. It also seems that the nature of the stories themselves is changing. Lapin points out that “as such alarming stories continue, we experience less discomfort. After the second and third well-publicized cases of babies found in Dumpsters [sic], we become anesthetized….Life continues, and very few of us stop to realize that these things simply were not happening fifty years ago” (Lapin, 1999).

The openness in education and information exchange is purported to be for the support of Democracy. Professor Bloom suggests that information about other people, secularism and political moderation erode our values:

…as Tocqueville put it, in a democracy tradition is nothing more than information. With the ‘information explosion,’ tradition has become superfluous. As soon as tradition has come to be recognized as tradition, it is dead, something to which lip service is paid in the vain home of edifying the kids. In the United States, practically speaking, the Bible was the only common culture, one that united simple and sophisticated, rich and poor, young and old… (Bloom, 1987)

In Hollywood too, the traditional values are ignored. Gone are the days of a dancing and laughing Ginger Rogers and the family musical. Films contain more sex, violence and pessimism than ever before, despite the criticism from the public. Film critic and radio show host Michael Medved points out that “Hollywood ignores the concerns of the overwhelming majority of the American people who worry over the destructive messages so frequently featured in today’s movies, television and popular music” (Medved, 1992). The rating system is a help to audiences in telling them what in a film might offend them, but when choices are limited, it is difficult to find a film the whole family can agree on. Medved claims that “the apologists for the entertainment industry seldom claim that Hollywood’s messages are beneficial; they argue, rather, that those messages don’t matter” (Medved, 1992) but many know that the opposite is true. On one hand the entertainment industry is making offensive films and calling it art, but on the other hand, people are still buying tickets to see them! One hand washes the other. Does art create culture or does art reflect culture?

In particular, I think of the movie The Passion of the Christ. While the movie plot was taken from the Gospels, the visual component was so violent, that I personally could not watch it. I am reminded of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The religion of one age is the literary entertainment of the next” (Goodreads, inc., 2009), and I wonder if the Bible is going the same route as Greek and Roman mythology, where a beautiful religion dominant for thousands of years is reduced to a Disney movie.

The church, now, is on TV, partaking of a culture it claims to despise as self-proclaimed evangelists beam their messages into living rooms and ask for a donation for God. Some of these so-called men of God become almost objects of worship as cult-like believers flock around them. One questions if true Biblical preaching is being done, or if the charisma of the preacher himself is at the audience. Perhaps it is an attempt to modernize, and use this new forum to reach people who otherwise could not (or would not!) attend services. This sort of evangelicalism has become absorbed in the fabric of our American culture and, for better or worse, impacts the way many people understand Biblical preaching.

Indeed, the very definition of what it means to be an American has changed. We cling to our puritanical roots, yet uphold rationalism and secularism as a national value. Americans have struggled to balance religion and rationalism since the beginning. One atheist points out that “The whole point of religious faith, its strength and chief glory, is that it does not depend on rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe ‘religious liberty’” and then turns around to apologetically say “I am not in favor of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am intrigued and mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies” (Dawkins, 2006). For him and many others, the two beliefs cannot exist simultaneously, yet we know that the best of Biblical preaching comes out of a rational argument. Part of this struggle, I believe, is imbedded in our own history, particularly with slavery. Separation of church and state requires us to keep religion out of the classroom and out of politics. But in reality, if there were no moral compass, we would still have slavery and segregation. It was thanks to religious leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr that the Civil Rights laws were passed to allow human beings to be truly equal in this country.

(Continue)