Textual Arachne

A weaver of threads.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

On being in a predominantly Abrahamic environment

Nio commented to my last post that she'd like to see me writing from my Pagan perspective on the BlogCon, and she's getting her request. Sort of.

The atmosphere at the Blog Con didn't strike me as unusual--and I have figured out why. Spending a lot of time around socially active, predominantly Christian people is not all that different from my daily atmosphere at the Divinity School. So I barely registered that I was reacting to it as a Pagan; I was just reacting to my normal state of affairs.

That state of affairs, though, is not a default state for Pagans, even if I'm immersed in it. And so, I need to puzzle out what that means, whether in the context of the Blog Con, the Pluralism Project, or the Divinity School, and how that's affecting my own faith. (So Nio, your response is a bit more general than you might have wished!)

There are the basic situations. The standard assumption that I'm a Christian ("Funny, you don't look Pagan...") is the first: Unless I bring it up, I am 'Christian by default.' My faith just doesn't register as one of the first options.

The awareness that any time I do mention my faith, I'll need to answer the followup of "what's that mean?" I've got the ten-second reply, the one-minute reply, and the "let's sit down over lunch and talk it over" response.

The expectation of shared context--that I'll know what's being talked about when someone quotes Scripture. Since we're in a culturally-established Christian nation, I do get a lot of these references--but not all, and it occasionally bugs me that I'm expected to know their faith as the default.

I sometimes feel that I have to prove, or defend, or guard my faith. Most of the people around me have centuries of tradition to draw on; Paganism has a lot of debate about whether and how far back our tradition goes. This leaves me feeling a little groundless at times, as if I have to make my arguments that much more secure because I can't refer to history.

One nice thing at both places, I don't experience a constant reference to God as He. Michelle Murrain's closing of the Sunday service, in particular, knocked me off my feet when she addressed God as Her.

Another good feeling that came from the con and HDS is the awareness that people around me take this seriously. I'd rather be engaged in an argument about why I believe something, than have it constantly brushed off as "ok, whatever" or "we don't really talk about that."

Discussions about interfaith collaboration, especially around social action, has another effect. I'm aware that, in some interfaith settings, Pagans and Paganism can become a deal-breaker for the collaborative work between faiths.

I think that our presence--Pagans in particular, but also minority faiths in general--forces a reevaluation of what faithfulness and religion have to mean. An interfaith group can't just keep widening the circle from "ecumenical" to "Judeo-Christian" to "Abrahamic" in the face of a culture full of Sikhs, Asatruar, Buddhists, Swaminarayan Hindus. They have to do something bigger than basing criteria on scripture or history--they have to entirely rethink what constitutes faith. What counts as religion. And that is a scary discussion to have, but a sorely needed one.

Perhaps what most struck me is this: Several times, both at the Divinity School and at the con, people have referred to the "brokenness" of the world. And I don't believe in that concept.

"Brokenness" isn't the same as being finite, or being riddled with hate and fear. Brokenness, to me, implies that the world is just wrong in some fundamental fashion. I look at the world--even with all the terror, the pain, the suffering--and I don't think it's perfect, all sweet and nice, but I don't think it's broken. It is, what it is. Our task isn't to fix it, which seems to imply some final perfected state, but to make it better, which is an ongoing process. Social action, social justice, peace work, in this context is not an attempt to correct our sins or fix our flaws, but to counter our tendency towards harm with increased kindness, and make the world a better place for the next round.


At 11:19 AM, Anonymous Rachel said...

I'm glad you're writing along these lines; this is fascinating stuff and I will almost certainly have more thoughts on it as I process it further. :-) But for now, I wanted to respond to this:

Brokenness, to me, implies that the world is just wrong in some fundamental fashion. I look at the world--even with all the terror, the pain, the suffering--and I don't think it's perfect, all sweet and nice, but I don't think it's broken. It is, what it is. Our task isn't to fix it, which seems to imply some final perfected state, but to make it better, which is an ongoing process.

Within the branch of Judaism where I am rooted, the teaching that the world is broken can be understood as a way of describing the fundamental rift or rupture between us and our Source. It's bridgeable, certainly -- in prayer and in our daily lives we aim to bridge it all the time. But the rupture is there. We are separate from God. We don't live in constant unity with the All.

Arguably the whole point of that separateness is the bridging thereof. We exist independent of our Source in order that we might seek to return. (Or not; we have that choice too.) But if there were no distance between us and God, then we would be in continual mystical union with God -- and indeed there would be no "we" to be in communion, there would be only continual Oneness, in which there is no separation between self and other, and no language, and no consciousness, and no movement, and no change. And that's not the way the world is, at least not now.

The Jewish teaching that the world is broken, at least as I currently understand it, is not a condemnation but a simple statement about reality. Suffering exists. That's brokenness. This isn't some kind of grand statement about Original Sin (not a Jewish concept, by the way!) -- just a reflection of what is, as we understand it. So long as suffering exists, so long as we are distant from God, then a kind of fundamental unity is ruptured. That's what I mean when I say the world is broken. We hurt each other; we hurt ourselves; we're not perfect yet.

Though the liberal movements of Judaism speak in terms of the "messianic age" in which the work of tikkun olam (healing the world on a mystical/metaphysical level, or a social justice level, depending on who you ask) will be completed, I'm not sure many of us regard that as work which can be finished. But we're obligated -- commanded, in the Jewish idiom -- to work toward that goal anyway. It's not possible, and we have to work toward it. It's a kind of koan, really. :-)

Anyway. I think I'm rambling now, so I'll stop. But I hope I'm making some sense?

At 12:26 PM, Blogger Arachne said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! I knew if I posted my discomfort with the word, you'd explain the concept...and I knew that there had to be more to the concept than my initial reaction!

It so often seems that talk about the brokenness of the world runs the risk of despair, of Gnostic-style rejection of the world as a broken thing, or of not loving but pitying the world. I much prefer your way of looking at it; and I find that trumpeting a love of the world, imperfect as it is, sometimes seems necessary to counter the tendency of despair.

Knowing that the separation, finitude, split from God, creates the ability to explore and love (and yes, to suffer) as beings separated from the All...

I guess it's a matter of word choice Broken, to me, has always implied worthless, or pitiable, or fundamentally bent--not the statement of fact that you cite.

I prefer your way of seeing it, and I can't thank you enough for explaining it to me.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger Arachne said...

...You know, I bet we share a lot of the things I mentioned, including the "So what's that mean, anyway?" speech!

At 4:54 PM, Blogger Inanna said...

Arache, I'm really enjoying your blog!

I think one reason "brokenness" doesn't fit into a Pagan worldview is because we believe in immanent Diety. We don't believe we are separate from our Source. Carol Christ recently describes this view as panentheism, the view that the gods are in and of everything. Our only mistake, on this view, is that we fail to recognize the Goddess in everything, including ourselves.

I do think this is different from a Judeo-Christian worldview, which sees a breach between God and humanity, at least in this life, on this earth.

At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Nio said...

Society assumes that each of us is Christian unless indentified by an outward symbol such as a piece of jewerly, a head covering, or food practice. There is a bumper sticker I am inclined to put on my car that says How dare you assume I'm Christian.

I find that the individuals who have the hardest time with my Paganism is my paternal kin who are Catholic. Some have disowned me, some ignor me, some ignore my path, and some ridicule me. And then they wonder why I don't show up at family functions!

Opposite of you, however, I think the world is broken. Broken in the sense that we are disconnected from one another and don't know how to fix the communication problems. It won't be solved anytime soon--certainly not in our lifetime--but I do think we will bridge the gaps, fill the silences and come together as humyns. I have to believe these things because if I didn't, I would have no hope at the bottom of my Pandora's Box.

PS Thanks for addressing my request.

At 11:49 AM, Blogger Arachne said...

Inanna and Nio: Thanks for thinking through this with me! I think that the idea of immanence does do a lot to counter the tendency to reject the world--though as Rachel mentioned, believing in the separation of God and humanity doesn't necessitate a rejection, and Nio's stance indicates that, as usual, Paganism encompasses different views on the matter.

Perhaps there's a way to incorporate both views--that She is immanent in all things, and that the world is suffering and imperfect. Or perhaps the only way to hold both views is to oscillate between the two.
Hmm...Oscillation...new post topic...

At 12:31 PM, Anonymous Sara said...

Excellent observances. I am a Pagan graduate of a mainline Christian divinity school myself, and I encountered the exact same frustrations and positive feelings you describe. And your thoughts on the brokenness issue are well put - I would argue that our culture, particularly the current culture of the 'developed' world, is broken, not the world itself. Or rather, that it is not a matter of brokenness (that can then, as you say, be 'fixed') at all, but rather one of a culture that is corrupt (and insane - at a deeply pathological level) at its inception and core - founded on a worldview that by nature breeds injustice, oppression, greed, etc. But this culture is NOT the world (and this worldview is not the only worldview!), and exploitation and greed is NOT the natural way of the human animal. The actual world, consisting of the earth and all the beings within it, is not broken and does not need to be fixed. Indeed - the attitude that the world is broken and in need of fixing can be seen as one of the original bedrock worldview problems in the first place. For example, plants to not need to be genetically 'fixed' to do things they would not normally do. We've fixed ourselves into a supreme disaster.

But I tend to go on. :) Thanks for your insights - it's always good to read the thoughts of another Pagan in divinity school!

At 12:37 PM, Anonymous Sara said...

I also realize that there is the level of spiritual 'brokenness' or split from the Source that others have discussed, and that my last post was not quite in the same vein.

For me - I don't think we are ever separate or broken in this way. It is our culture and our worldview that makes us broken, not our nature. By that I mean I cannot believe that human beings are by nature ever NOT in relationship with the divine. We may be in bad relationship, but even a bad relationship is a relationship - we are never separate.

Hmm....of course, I'm continuously trying to articulate myself on the subject and do my own bit of oscillation....an interesting topic for sure.


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