Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Re-Membering Theology: Part V

Part V: Paths and Parting Ways

Now, of course, deo and others might find this kind of talk a bit uncomfortable, even disconcerting. To speak of being moved by a theological story, rather than led forward by philosophical rigor towards truth and reality... And I would be the first to step up and agree that, yes, philosophical inquiry is vital and necessary. After all, how will we come to know ourselves and our stories without the perspective and provocation of philosophy? How could we find the rational common ground on which we share and compare these stories, the very activity that enables us to grow and learn about ourselves? Interfaith dialogue is only rendered meaningful and relevant when we have a standard of careful, subtle thoughtfulness with which to understand it--a common language, so to speak. Philosophy can provide that common language, because it is capable of teasing out (even if only by cataloguing) those threads that run through the lives of every human being of any religion: questions of existence and identity, ethics and aesthetics, epistemology and hermeneutics, to name only a few. In other words, philosophy, like theology, like the scientific method, like basket-weaving, has its own unique function, and this function is necessary, invaluable. But it only goes so far.

Almost a year ago, I wrote an "open letter" to deo in response to a deo's Shadow podcast on "Science, Skepticism and Scientology" (#38, the penultimate episode, it turns out). He replied to my post with a very thoughtful comment of his own, which at the time stirred up so many ideas in response that I never got around to responding at all (for which I hope he has long since forgiven me!). In his comment, deo wrote:
My mistake was always taking Paganism as a from of inquiry into the nature of the mind-independent universe, as if some deep metaphysical truths could be found within it. Paganism is not suited to such an inquiry. As you suggest, Paganism in general is suited to meaning-making, not ontological discovery. If you confuse these two as I had, Paganism looks like a jumbled mess, barren of value... or at least badly in need of repair.

Now, I'm not sure I agree that "Paganism is not suited" to an inquiry into metaphysical truths. (Or at least, I do not see, at first glance, why it is specifically less suited to it than any other spiritual or materialist worldview.) But I do understand what deo means when he says that it is a mistake to approach Paganism primarily as an inquiry into the mind-independent universe. For one, the very conception of a mind-independent universe takes a certain amount of dualism for granted, and Pagans are notorious for rejecting such dualism. (So, incidentally, are Christian mystics who, in a moment of exaltation or weakness, depending on who you ask, have been known to experience a union with the Mind of God which is not separate from the world which it creates and sustains, rendering the idea of a "mind-independent universe" sound downright silly.) This is not to say that it is not incredibly useful to have a dualistic perspective of the world in which we have, on the one hand, the objective universe and, on the other, the mind. Thank you, Descartes (among others), for shrugging off the restraints of a God-bound worldview and giving birth to the modern scientific method and all its subsequent, succulent fruits, like computers, evolutionary biology and the atom bomb. There are, of course, problems with believing that this is the only valid approach to understanding the world, but that's an old argument that I need not get into right now.

The point is that anyone familiar with deo's podcasts and posts should have seen this eventual "outgrowing" of Paganism coming: he has always demonstrated his love for philosophical thought, particularly as it's shaped by the Western philosophical tradition; he explains that it was in part Paganism's "promises of deep dark secrets," those hidden truths about the world, that attracted him to that spiritual tradition in the first place. (Whereas for me, such promises always sounded a bit hokey and remained, for a long time, a good reason not be another New Age fluff-bunny sucker.) In his response to my post last year, deo talked about the struggles of functioning as an "ironist," pursuing activities and maintaining beliefs for pragmatic reasons even though they apparently contradict one's meta-theory about the world. He writers more recently that his "entire time in Paganism was dedicated to making it more palatable to the skeptic," which is in some ways a very fair description of my own time within Christianity (looking back only a year or two, there are examples of such justification in this very blog). Having gained a bigger perspective on my own journey through Christianity into Druidry, I can appreciate these struggles and internal conflicts. Reading about his reasons for leaving Paganism behind, it seems that deo is not giving up or outgrowing anything, but rather growing into himself, becoming more true to his own natural inclinations, his own "inherent beliefs" in a mind-independent universe, the value of ontological exploration and the intellectual rigor it requires.

As I see the end of this series of posts in sight, I realize it has certainly not gone where I wanted it to go. Bad essays, bad! Heel. I have not, for instance, addressed the possibility that even if there are "ontological truths" about a "mind-independent universe," discovering those truths through careful rational thought does not guarantee that all people will react to them in the same rational, detached way (I was going to cite Myer's wonderful discussion of Immensities in his new book, The Other Side of Virtue, as well as R. Scott Appleby's fascinating text, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation). I haven't gotten around to discussing my current understanding of the Divine and its slow, slow evolution towards the possibility of polytheism, nor have I discussed why I, unlike deo, do not find myself burdened by a sense of irony when it comes to Paganism. In fact, I have only barely skimmed the surface of the whole point of all these posts, which is: traditions, including the tradition of philosophical inquiry, each have their own unique internal consistencies, and at times pursuing these paths requires that we commit ourselves to them completely and pursue them to their utmost end. After all, we can't all mull around the bottom of the mountain, admiring the diversity of trailheads. Sometimes, we must gird our loins, as they say, and pick one to see where it leads, what treasures it might have hidden around those bends and what views it may afford that we cannot see or imagine from the bottom. Such a commitment comes easiest when it is not dragged down by irony or internal disjoint, and so pursuing a path deeply along its natural course also demands that, along the way, we come to better know ourselves.

deo has chosen the path of non-religious philosophical inquiry that, for whatever reasons, has called to him for a very long time as the most fruitful and fulfilling. Because of that same call, though for different reasons, I have chosen the path of Druidry. As we each follow our unique paths, there will be times when the view spreading out before us will offer us new perspectives on those paths we left behind. These are times when we might look back and remember our own experiences on those paths, piece together the many disparate-seeming parts to form a new perspective of the whole and where it leads. That is, we will, hopefully, have moments in which we remember and re-member the theologies of our pasts. I have experienced this a few times recently looking back on the Christianity of my childhood, and I believe that deo, too, will have such moments looking back at his time as a Pagan and gaining new insights about himself and the spiritual movement. We should value these moments as moments of connection and understanding, and a place from which we can begin to talk with one another about the nature of the world.


  1. Can I just say that I'm not at all satisfied with this post--it seems mostly redundant and muddle-headed. Blah. Better luck next time. I promise future posts will not be written while multitasking on an empty stomach. I swear.

  2. Ali, I'm enjoying your writings and this series a great deal.

    I think that any time one tries to slow their mind down enough to spell out the steps of these processes, it does have a tendancy to seem "redundant" but these writings should be, first and foremost, for you. For those others that get something from them - that's just a bonus.

    I think you're doing a great job with it and look forward to reading more as you post.

  3. I've been meaning to say something substantial in response, but there never seems the time!

    Still, I want to say how much I have enjoyed reading this series (and look forward to when I can read it more closely). I admire the graceful way you ground your more abstract reflections in autobiography. It's rare to find the two so well-mingled.