Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cú Chulainn and the Queen of Swords: Reflections on Reason and Nakedness

courtesy of ~♥~AmahRa58~♥~, via flickr.comOne of the ways that I clothe and shelter my nakedness in the world is with my intellect, which always seems to be churning away sometimes even in spite of myself.

Don't get me wrong, I value reason highly as an expression of Spirit in the human animal; it is a wisdom-weaver and pattern-dancer, it is one of the meaning-makers of human experience that can serve to highlight and elevate, to shape and navigate. When used in this way, reason and critical analysis can exercise the mind, stripping it of falsehoods and obscurities and laying it bare to the world in all its complexity and sublimity (and when applied with a devotion that borders on bhakti, reason can be a terrible and awesome thing that shakes the world ruthlessly down to its rattling joints).

But too often, reason can be wielded as a weapon. I find that I do this far more often than I like, and it always leaves me feeling uncomfortable, disturbed from the dwelling-place of naked presence that I am continually seeking in the world. When I feel threatened or misunderstood, I can swing my intellect like a sword, cutting down hesitant, half-formed or poorly-articulated arguments where they stand — without regard for the meanings they are striving towards or the complexities they, too, are trying to navigate. The fight becomes the thing, and I get caught up in the thrill of parry and thrust and the heat of my own mental muscles tensed and flexing as I dodge and turn and feel the bite of my blows striking home. I imagine there are times when I am downright frightening to watch, all bloated and distorted and rage-red with battle frenzy like one of those mythic Celtic heroes, words and facts and twisting, writhing arguments streaming from me and lashing out in all directions — or perhaps I give myself too much credit. This is, in any case, often how it feels when I am in the midst of a passionate argument that I care deeply about and that I fear is threatened. Inside of this fury, there is no room for nakedness or vulnerability, no space for poise or grace. There is only the fire and roar of the fight.

But what inevitably follows this torrent of all-devouring reason is that moment when I come back to myself, panting and sweating and catching up to my breath, my inspiring, my presence to Spirit. In that eerie, empty silence rising up around me, the ragged noise of my panting is the only sound.

courtesy of Diana Blackwell, via flickr.comMy sense of triumphant and righteous victory might last an hour, or a day, or only a minute. But eventually it always comes down to that aloneness in the center of a razed conversation. I am back to being only myself again, no cause to defend, no enemies left to fight (though the enemies were often enough friends, anyway, who have ducked or retreated to the sidelines, ready with the naked women and the tubs of water). I am left feeling exposed and embarrassed out in the open, ashamed of how, in my intensity, I have forgotten to breathe. (I suspect that, despite the overlaid Christian themes of shame and prudery, there is some truth in the idea that it is embarrassment that breaks Cú Chulainn of his battle-fury, brought face-to-face with the nakedness of the women braving his mania with the perfect vulnerability of their stillness and bare skin.)

That I should feel embarrassed by my over-eager intellect is perhaps the result of our culture. I wonder, if I were a male, if I might not feel a bit more pride or at least sardonic acceptance of this battle-frenzy in the heat of reasoned argument. As it is, I think there is something right about the sudden reassertion of vulnerability and uncertainty in the midst of these feelings of victory. Too often, it is too late to backtrack, apologize or invite more gentle discussion — the damage has been done, and I'm left worrying, wondering what others are thinking and feeling while knowing full well that, had I been more even and measured in my engagement, I could have simply asked them. Then I think of my cat, Cu Gwyn, still young enough to wrestle like a kitten but large enough to have teeth that draw blood, or I think of Jeff's children, still learning to navigate the awkwardness of social and personal boundaries, still learning the extent of their own strength and how to use it kindly and effectively. And I remember the song lyrics of Ani DiFranco, when she sings in "up up up up up up" that "half of learning how to play is learning what not to play, and she's learning the spaces she leaves have their own things to say" (because she is "trying to sing just enough so that the air around her moves, and make music like mercy, that gives what it is and has nothing to prove").

I have come to these reflections because I am in the process of writing a critique of Isaac Bonewits' brief introduction to "polytheology" in his book, Neopagan Rites, and I find myself concerned that what I write may step on some toes or cause offense, may spark controversy or strife. These things are not in themselves so much a problem — I think they may even be necessary for us to grow and mature as a community. But there are quite a few things about Bonewits' explanation of polytheism and the nature of the gods that I find so ridiculous or so objectionable that it would be easy to draw my intellectual sword and rip his words to shreds. It is my desire to do just that that I want to confront and engage, and to lay bare to you readers beforehand, so that we can work through that urge together without giving it too much ground. The last time I wrote a post of this nature, I addressed John Michael Greer's book A World Full of Gods with a certain amount of haste and distress, still stinging from disillusionment, and in doing so I think burnt some bridges that have yet to be fully rebuilt. I still owe him a rereading of that book, and in some ways all this struggle with polytheism over the past few years has been at least in part due to my sense of obligation in giving Greer's text a fair second hearing (instead of one mired in frustration at his constant dismissals of strawmanly shallow monotheism).

In my recent invitation to readers to introduce themselves (still open, by the way), many of you have complimented me for my honesty. But honesty of the intellect is only one form, and lately I have come to suspect that I've surreptitiously opted for a lopsided "let me tell you what I really think" kind of honesty that does not always give a very accurate representation of myself. I am intelligent, and I want to be admired and respected for that especially among other Pagans. I get easily annoyed by the expectation that Pagans, especially Pagan women, should be all airy-fairy and hippie-mystic, eschewing grounding themselves in critical analysis for fear of being perceived as intolerant or being accused by the gossip-drama police of thinking too highly of themselves. To borrow a phrase from Terry Pratchett, in some ways the Pagan community can be just one big crab bucket. But then there are the times when religion becomes mere research (or research replaces religion), and I find myself studying text after text on Celtic mythology and Pagan theology, deep ecology and feminist theory, pacifism, history and political philosophy — all so that I can justify my right to present myself as an Authentic Pagan here on these pages, so that I can defend my ideas with the sharpened sword of my reason alone without having to rely on the whim and precarious, flimsy poetry of life with Spirit and the gods.

courtesy of Guillaume Laurent, via flickr.comThis is not what I want. Reason can strip us bare and lay us open to the universe. It can serve us as a map to paradox and mystery, as a compass that orients us to truth, justice and the American way? and beauty. Turned honestly and deeply towards our own minds and motivations, the intellect can be a path towards nakedness in the world. But it can also be used to build walls around ourselves, to protect us from criticism and change. I do not want to be just another crab, busy pulling others down around me all the time. I do not want to worry about impressing you, my lovely readers, though I very much want us to challenge and provoke each other with our conversations and contemplations. I hope that my posts will be read in this light, and I promise to strive better in the future to write them from this place of cultivated vulnerability.

Maybe there is something in the aether lately, because it seems that during the morning I have spent writing this post, there have been others writing on a similar theme. May we all strive better to settle into the nakedness of real presence, even here on the vast, ethereal interwebs. In the meantime, please stay tuned for more polytheistic ponderings to come.


  1. I know what you mean about using intellect as a weapon. Sometimes when someone criticizes me, I verbally slice them to bits.

    I am pondering the question of the book review. It seems to me that people read books of this sort for the purpose of religious/spiritual inspiration, but different people are inspired by different things. The book review then is not so much to critique the book, but to find what you learned from it about what you do or don't believe in, or to say what type of person might enjoy the book.

    For example, I once read a novel that had to do with someone from a materialistic background finding a deeper spirituality after meeting some Quakers. I found that as someone from a Quaker background, it did not speak to me, but it may have resonated more with readers like the main character who came from a materialistic background and were not familiar with the values found in Quakerism.

    I found Neopagan Rites on Google Books and skimmed the Polytheology chapter. It is of little interest to me. I know that I'm a pantheist. Polytheism does not resonate with me.

    So when you read something, you observe whether or not it resonates with you, and that tells you something about what you do or don't believe in, or what does or doesn't inspire or interest you.

    If you read something that you don't agree with, writing about it in your blog may help you explore your own beliefs. I think a blog is a place to express your own personal journey, and in that context, it's okay to explore why certain things don't resonate with you. Exploring that doesn't have to mean saying that a book is worthless; it can be more about defining your own beliefs.

  2. I really appreciate your thoughts on this, Mightyteek. It's a good reminder of why I read books to begin with - I know sometimes I get so caught up in the "reviewing" aspect, especially because I write reviews for other journals sometimes and feel an obligation to readers to give an honest assessment that is at least somewhat objective. But the deeply personal reflections that books provoke is so important, too, and you're right that a blog is an appropriate place for that.

    I should say that although Bonewits' book seems to be written for a very particular audience (namely, ADF members looking to write liturgy in a very specific style) it did serve as an inspiration and guide for me in some of my own work of crafting rituals. But his discussion of "polytheology" has brought up some important objections on the philosophical/spiritual side of things, which for me is such a central aspect of why I even do ritual that I feel it must be addressed at some point.

    It turns out, the post I'd been planning to share here might end up over at Pantheon, the Pagan blog at Patheos.com, during their "polytheology week" in August. Which means I'll be crafting it into an essay with a broader scope than I'd originally planned, but will probably take more time with it. Which, I hope, will be a good thing. :)

  3. We all have our own paths. Mine has a dose of Jung in it.

    A principle in Jung is that whenever we get annoyed or angry about something someone else is doing, then the desire to do the thing we are condemning, is often present in ourselves, but we are not recognising it.

    So, looking at your post, you say you 'get easily annoyed by the expectation that Pagans should be airy-fairy and hippie-mystic, eschewing grounding themselves in critical analysis.'

    A follower of Jung might say that being airy-fairly and mystic, and abandoning some of your intellectualism is something that you'd really like to do, at a deep level.

  4. Too funny! (Not your post, but the coincidence of it.) I just dug up and reposted an old post from my archives that discusses similar feelings as to what you've posted here.

    Who is the lone commenter on that post? You. :)

    So yeah, I think there is something in the air.