Saturday, June 21, 2014

Solstice Meditations on the Fragility of Nature

Today, the day of the summer solstice, is a time to celebrate the beauty and vitality of nature, to bask in the rays of light and warmth reaching out to us all around the earth. In the Lithuanian Pagan solstice observance known as Rasos or Jonines, paralleled in the Latvian holiday of Ligo, and other similar festivities across Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavia, the peak of the nightlong celebration is the setting on fire of wagon wheels coated in pitch, which are rolled down hills to mimic the rolling or turning of the sun across the seasons. As there is only a brief time of darkness on the night of the summer solstice, owing to the phenomenon of the White Nights in the Northern European summer, the lighting of the wheel is meant to re-awaken the sun when it seems to have disappeared, however briefly, threatening darkness, chaos and death. Happily, the sun is soon again shining, and the cycle is complete.

The lighting of the wheel is a reminder that the ancients understood nature to be not only sacred and vital, but also fragile, in perpetual risk of destruction or disappearance. Whether you go out today or tonight to celebrate the solstice, or stay home due to the endless round of task and obligations that consume our lives like the darkness that swallows the sun each night, say a prayer or take a moment to contemplate how our modern way of life has threatened the continued vitality of nature like never before in human history. Let's take a note from the wisdom of the ancients, and remember that life is not just a quest for material consumption and social status. Life is also to be lived in, and with, nature, and that imposes a sacred obligation on us to not allow nature to be destroyed. Not by choking our air with automobile exhaust, not by blowing up mountains to burn more coal, not by ripping open the depths of the earth and ruining the water supply to scrape out more oil and gas, not by mining uranium to fuel unsafe nuclear power plants, not by islands of plastic garbage stifling the sea, and not by mountains of discarded electronics that poor children in Africa and elsewhere burn to separate the valuable bits to make more electronics to be discarded next year.

There are so many problems to be addressed in our unhealthy use of nature's resources, but the sun, who we Pagans salute on the solstice, contains one key to our planet's survival. The sun offers boundless energy that we can tap without destroying or desecrating our environment. Solar power is not a panacea to all that ails the earth and our relationship to it, but it is at least a partial solution to one piece of our environmental dilemma. Let's embrace that full-force and encourage our politicians to do the same!

May all hail the beauty, warmth and power of the sun.....!

May all remember our dependence on, and the fragility, of nature.....!

May all find the wisdom in their hearts to respect true and enduring values....!

Peace and plenty to you and yours on the solstice!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Rites of Spring, Then and Now

Sacrifice and Revolution...are these the Rites of Spring?

I was listening tonight to a radio program featuring a discussion of Stravinsky's composition "The Rites of Spring," a ballet inspired by Slavic Paganism and the notion of human sacrifice. The music and dancing in "The Rites" were so radical, so jarring, so unlike anything that had gone before in European classical music that this ballet actually caused riots in Paris when it was first performed in 1913. The discussion I listened to was on Chris Lydon's Boston NPR program "Open Source," which replayed a discussion of Stravinsky from the year 2000 on "The Connection," the program Lydon hosted on WBUR at that time. You can hear it at .

I am moved to reflect upon sacrifice, spring and revolution. We are just a few days in from May Day, once a worldwide day of tribute to workers and socialism, and more recently, a date on the calendar when modern-day Pagans often celebrate Beltane or other "rites of spring." In Stravinsky's vision, the Rites of Spring means the selection of a young maiden to be offered in human sacrifice in order to bring on the life-giving renewal of spring. The maiden is then driven to dance until she dies, which the frantic, driving music of the composition renders both hypnotic and frightening. Stravinsky's, and not only Stravinsky's view of sacrifice is that it is a very basic spiritual mystery, a primal bargain in which death pays for life, in which something must be given, wasted, killed, destroyed--sacrificed--by one, or by some, so that new abundance can be obtained for the many, or even for all of us. There is a similar logic in Christ's crucifixion and in Abraham's near-sacrifice of his son Isaac in the Old Testament.

In Norse myth, the world itself is created by the sacrificial killing and dismemberment of the primal being Ymir, and wisdom, poetry, writing and more are made possible for mankind by Odin's agonizing self-sacrifice on the world tree Yggdrasil. The apocalyptic vision of the end of the world in the poem Voluspa is also in a sense a story of sacrifice, as the destruction of the existing world is the prelude to the revitalization and re-creation of the world, rising up from the depths of the ocean, "fresh and green."

With our retrospective knowledge of what would happen in Europe and Russia in the years immediately following the debut of the "Rites of Spring," Stravinsky's ballet now seems not only a powerful reflection on sacrifice and death, but an artistic prophecy of the huge changes about to occur in Europe through WW I and the Russian Revolution. I find its message still entirely relevant, still full of jarring, even frightening resonance, in our own time. Our society has become dominated by a corporate and economic elite as corrupt, self-serving and unresponsive to human needs and aspirations as was the Tsarist regime of Stravinsky's time. Are we perhaps building up to the point when a revolution--a massive, horrific, collective sacrifice--is again required to make this society a more promising place for all of its citizens, not just a privileged elite? Will we need to rise up and accept the necessity of risk, loss, ruin, danger, and even death, to break the death-grip of the corporate oligarchy that now controls the parameters of our lives?

It is a tired refrain of American political thought that in a democracy such as ours, we must work through the political system, with all its flaws and contradictions, to achieve improvements in society, and that we should accept the reality that change comes slowly, and may take many generations. There is no need for drastic action, so this thinking goes, no reason to imagine anything as violent and radical as a revolution. America had a revolution once, it is true, but that was long ago, and we now have a constitutional democracy designed to accommodate public demands and to foster change and adjustments in our society, however slowly. All things in good time, you see.

Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" reminds us of other, darker chords that can be played on the strings of the collective social orchestra. We are not in a time of social and political progress. The system is not working, or if it is, it is only working for those with massive financial power to bring about the results that they desire. Thus, when we have a financial Ragnarok as in 2008, it is only the oligarchic elite that gets much help from the government that is supposed to be "by the people, of the people, and for the people." Thus, when the world is threatened by massive climate disruption, when the icecaps are melting and increasingly violent storms and droughts rock one country after another, the carbon fuel industry is able to manipulate the media and cloud the public discourse in the United States to such a degree that most people doubt the need for any decisive action, and the profits of the carbon companies go up and up and up, just like the earth's temperature, with all the great danger that entails. Whatever happens in our world now is assimilated, adapted and repackaged by the forces of international finance and corporate power into a way for them to gather greater wealth and influence. What chance do the rest of us have?

In our world of dazzling, digital distractions, where our concerns about pressing social and political issues and our desires for real and meaningful change can be so easily dissipated, neutered and anesthetized by ever-proliferating forms of mind-crippling entertainment, it is hard to imagine a massive uprising such as the French, Russian or American revolutions. Furthermore, in a world where the economy has been transformed into an ever-more competitive, ever-less supportive, ever-more frightening zone of total insecurity for the vast majority of wage-earners, more and more of whom fear that at any moment they might be replaced by the latest "labor-saving" technology, which offers vast profits to the corporate and financial elite and the prospect of unemployment or progressively lower-wage work to many, most people are rightfully terrified to embark on any course of action that could endanger what little economic and occupational security they have managed to hold onto against the powerful techno-capital forces rumbling in the background like Tyrannosaurus Rex monsters looking to devour any and every creature that they can force into their perpetually ravenous mouths.

And yet... and yet, the brutal lesson of history, and of the "Rites of Spring," is that there can be no real spring, no true renewal, no large-scale social progress, without sacrifice and loss. The time may come when people will rise up to demand this, and be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the welfare of future generations. It is my hope that as the threat of such uprising and revolution begins to take on shape and form and momentum, as began to happen with the "Occupy Wall Street" protests of 2011 and 2012, that the people with great power in government and the corporate and financial sectors will finally realize t the need for a thorough renegotiation of the basic social contract, and then our society can be renewed on a better basis for all. But if they are unable or unwilling to accept the need for such change... if they are so blinded by their own narcissism and the delusional belief that they have a right to perpetuate the order that is of such service to them and such disservice to others... then all bets are off, and the "Rites of Spring" may again need to be performed.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fighting the Darkness

This seems to me such a dark time in America, with a darkness that is only growing. At every turn, the forces of conservatism, inequality and oligarchy are racking up victories, with little or no or only the most pale and weak-kneed opposition from the more "liberal" or socially progressive voices in our political structure. Though some see rays of hope in such accomplishments as the increasing acceptance of the right of homosexuals to enter into marriage, I see this as only a very small drop in the bucket when we consider the larger problems of stagnant wages for the many and ever-expanding fortunes for the few, the increasing dominance of the wealthy elite and large corporations in many areas of our life. Even the supposedly ultra-liberal cable news network MSNBC runs the self-congratulatory and pro-fracking advertisements of the carbon fuel industry, and the supposedly liberal New York Times increasingly caters to the Wall Street-financial services crowd that now dominates New York City as well as the American economy.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the largest international body of climate scientists in the world, released a new report on March 31st detailing how the climate is already changing with catastrophic effect, and how the dangers and crises now occurring will only be magnified if the world is unwilling to take action. As an educator, I see the trend toward increasingly standardized and regulated education only gaining strength, as influential figures from the President on down seem to be abandoning the ideals of liberal arts education in favor of increasingly vocational, job skills oriented education. When people are no longer allowed to think freely and openly, to freely explore the riches of cultural heritage and to freely experiment with ideas and activities that are freed from the stifling grip of monetary evaluation, but when the education system only trains the bulk of people to perform the tasks and functions deemed valuable by the high priests of the high-tech companies and the corporate economy, an economy organized around the maximization of corporate profits and stock market dividends, not the fulfillment of human needs, I shudder to think of the cold, heartless, fearful, high-tech prison of a society that we are building for ourselves, digital brick by dividend brick. Profits will increase but human freedom and happiness? I doubt it.

I am starting to reach the conclusion that others before me have, a conclusion that I have always resisted; the feeling that there may be no hope for saving America from its drift and decline. I actually sympathize to some extent with the right-wingers and Tea Partiers who range and rant about our country going wrong; I agree that our society is sick, but I disagree with them about the nature of the malady and the treatment to be administered. Many on the right seem to think that the root of the problem is Big Bad Government; I disagree completely. I would grant that our government can do stupid things, that some policies, regulations and programs may be misguided and counterproductive, but that calls for fixing and improving the policies, regulations and programs, not abolishing them all in favor of an unregulated libertarian utopia. I think that vision, if ever achieved, would only result in a dog-eat-dog, every-gun-for-himself, zero compassion dystopia. I see the problem lying in the power of large corporate business interests to manipulate everything to their advantage, without caring enough about the suffering of the poor or the desecration of the planet. If corporations were able to function as good public citizens and be effective stewards of society and the environment, I would be all in favor of total free market capitalism, but I do not see that being the case at all.

Without pressure from the government with its pesky rules, regulations, policies and taxation, many companies and wealthy individuals would do nothing for the benefit of others or of the world in general, but only seek to further enrich themselves and increase their plunder and power. That's what happened in such periods of economic "freedom" as the "robber baron" era of the late 1800s, in the Roaring Twenties, and in our recent period of financial deregulation and financial collapse. You may have noticed that since the bleakest days of the 2008 downturn, the stock market has recovered, big banks and financial companies are running up great profits, but many people are now working for lower wages than before the crash, many others cannot find work at all, and many people have lost their homes and had their lives ruined. In this case, the government functioned effectively to rescue the financial elite, but not the rest of us. What I conclude from that is not that we need to abolish the government, but need to radically reform it to make it more responsive to human needs. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court's ruling in the McCutcheon case this week will only make our politicians more dependent on big-money, fat-cat donors, so the situation is not likely to improve anytime soon.

I do see a ray of hope in my little corner of the Pagan world. Recent communications with a number of Norse Pagans in America have again demonstrated that I am not alone in wishing to develop a new form of American Asatru that would be politically progressive, environmentally concerned, anti-racist, anti-military, and pro-social justice. I think there are enough of us to do it. So, please do get in touch with me if you are on this wavelength. Send me a message to this blog including your email address, and note that you do NOT want this published on the blog. I will contact you off-blog and we can start networking, sharing ideas and planning. This may be a dark time, but we can do our best to be a source of light and vision, love for the earth and caring for humanity--ALL humanity and ALL the earth. A universal Paganism based in Norse traditions but not limited to them. If this resonates with you, please communicate with me.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

We Are All West Virginians Now

The January 9 chemical spill in West Virginia that has deprived some 300,000 people of safe drinking water for the last week is a horrible tragedy. What is even worse is the larger problem of corporate irresponsibility and disregard for mankind and and nature alike that this catastrophe brings into focus. Many large corporations can cause massive damage to the natural environment, to local communities, and/or to ordinary people's lives, health and jobs and get away with it. Oh, they may be slapped with a small or even a very large fine here and there, as recently happened with Goldman Sachs when it was punished for trading irregularities with a $550m penalty, or be required to pay some kind of compensation to victims of corporate malfeasance, as with BP (British Petroleum) and the 2010 oil spill that wreaked havoc with the Gulf of Mexico, killed or sickened marine life, downgraded the health of Gulf waters, and wrecked the lives of local fishermen and others whose livelihood depended on the Gulf of Mexico being a healthy ecosystem and not a toxic cesspool. None of these fines or penalties are ever large or severe enough to actually pose a serious threat to the continued survival of the corporations in question; they are more like additional business expenses that may reduce profits for a time, but can gradually be absorbed and forgotten, without the companies involved having to make any fundamental changes in how they do business. It was calculated that the seemingly huge fine imposed on Goldman Sachs would only cost the financial behemoth about 24 minutes worth of its usual profits. Most of us suffer more financial hardship from traffic fines or parking tickets than do these monstrous companies from billion dollar penalties.

Furthermore, corporations are often able to greatly reduce their fines or wriggle out of paying anything at all through fancy legal maneuvering. When it's big government versus big business in the courtroom, large corporations can often afford more and better lawyers than can the government, and they can also opt to run out the clock, keeping the matter spinning in legal limbo for so long that the government either agrees to a settlement far less costly than the original proposed penalty, or simply gives up. Beyond that, when the government tries to create new regulations or even new government agencies to fight back against corporate greed and malfeasance, corporations are able to bribe, threaten and otherwise influence many legislators and regulators into either halting the new legislation or agency in its tracks or watering it down with loopholes, exclusions and exceptions that essentially thwart the original intent of the legislation or agency. In addition, corporations and their legal teams are able to recruit former politicians and regulators to work for them to circumvent laws and regulations, creating a revolving door situation in which government officials take corporate jobs working against the very laws and agencies that these officials once were in charge of. Another strategy is to leave the laws in place but cut the funding so that the regulatory agencies involved will not be able to enforce or implement the policies they are charged with. Conservatives love to claim that big government regulations are strangling our economy, but I think the truth is more that powerful corporations are strangling our government and leaving the American people with little protection from the depredations and abuses of the corporate elite.

On the night of January 14th, the late-night comedians and political commentators Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert made the trenchant point that if the poisoning of public drinking water in West Virginia had been caused by Islamic terrorists, Americans would be up in arms and screaming for our military forces to attack, invade and obliterate the "bad guy" terrorist in retribution. However, since the toxic spill was perpetrated by American corporations rather than foreign militants, there are only muted and muffled calls for investigations of what went wrong and aid to those affected. This double-standard says volumes about the privileged position occupied by business and corporations in our culture, society, system of government and sense of morality. Business is sacred and given deferential treatment, even when it causes terrible harm to us.

It hasn't always been this bad. The environmental movement was able to gain traction in our political culture in the 1960s and 1970s and scored some notable successes such as the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and cleaning up many polluted sites, such as the Ohio River, which used to be flammable, so thick was it with pollutants. In recent years, though anti-government conservatives have been waging a tireless campaign to reduce what they cynically label "job-killing" environmental regulations and to reduce the funding for the EPA.which some have pronounced Public Enemy #1.

Well, capitalism, corporations and big business may be sacred to anti-government conservatives and Free Market Fundamentalists, but what does all this mean to Pagans?

I know there are a fair number of American Pagans, including Heathens and/or Asatru members among others, who consider themselves conservatives and/or libertarians. They take a very negative view of government authority, which they see as infringing on individual liberty. However, the sacredness of nature is usually considered to be a core component of Pagan beliefs and worldview. I would think it pretty obvious that this puts Pagans on the side of protecting nature, not defending its despoilers. To put it another way, I would think that a true conservative should try to conserve nature, not ally him or herself with "conservatives" who care more for corporate profits than environmental purity. In mythology, there are gods like Thor that protect the earth, but such gods were nowhere in sight when industrial pollution struck the Gulf or West Virginia. In our reality of the present day, it is the government--yes, the big, bad liberal government--that strives to protect nature from corruption and degradation through such agencies as the EPA and by passing and enforcing laws that restrict and punish industrial and corporate pollution. It therefore seems to me that you CANNOT be a self-respecting Pagan of any sort and be in favor of letting businesses and corporations freely pollute our world and destroy our natural environment and be opposed to the government protecting what is supposed to be sacred to you. You should support the government in being the caretaker of our environment, and pray for more and better laws, regulations, policies and agencies to protect nature, NOT less and fewer.

Pagans, stand up for nature! And let's welcome people of other faiths and traditions who also care about the future health of this planet that we all share.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Multi-Culti Santa and the Dilemmas of Representation

Ho ho ho!

Santa Claus is a fascinating and often contentious figure. He is claimed by Christians as the mythologized version of Saint Nikolaos/Nicholas, an ethnic Greek citizen of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire who lived from 270-343 and grew up to become Bishop of Myra in the region known today as Turkey. As a leader of the Byzantine Christian community, Nikolaos participated in the Council of Nicaea in 325. Nikolaos was later canonized as a saint of the Byzantine Church, and was particularly popular with sailors and fisherman, becoming a patron saint of such seagoing professions. He was also remembered for a practice of giving gifts to needy persons. This formed one of the kernels of the legend that gradually developed around him, transforming him from a leader of the fourth century Church to a mysterious, supernatural benefactor who provides gifts to the good in the season of Christmas each year. In many accounts of the genesis of Santa, this is where the story stops, with a gift-giving Christian Saint Nicholas who is eventually transformed into today's Saint Nick or Santa Claus.

However, there is much about our modern Santa that is hard to explain as deriving exclusively from the life of this Byzantine Greek Saint. What does the life of a fourth century Byzantine bishop in Turkey have to do with a portly old fellow dressed in red, one who is totally lacking in any Christian accoutrements, nary a crucifix nor a baby Jesus in sight, flying around the world, at night, in a magic sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer? Why is he associated with elves and the North Pole? Why are Christmas presents left around a gorgeously decorated evergreen tree? To answer these questions, we have to move beyond a strictly Christian framework to consider Pagan elements that were woven into the many-faceted legend of Saint Nick. It is not in Christian hagiography, but in Germanic Pagan mythology that we find a coherent explanation of these aspects of the Santa Claus legend. The god Odin emerges as something of a Pagan alter ego of the supposedly Christian Santa. Odin, like Santa, watches over all the world and observes the deeds of all mankind. Like Santa flying all around the world in the winter night, Odin wanders far and wide. Though Odin is not associated with a flying sleigh drawn by eight reindeer, he has an eight-legged flying horse, Sleipnir, who bears him through the sky,and Norse myth tells of a number of deities who have conveyances drawn by animals, most notably Thor's chariot drawn by goats, and Freyja's wagon drawn by cats. The ornately-decorated Christmas tree is prefigured by the World Tree of Norse mythology as well as the practice among the Pagan Scandinavians, as documented by the Christian author Adam of Bremen, of a massive sacrifice of animals and humans who would be hung on evergreen trees near the Pagan temple at Uppsala, in Sweden. The North Pole and reindeer associations clearly associate Santa with Scandinavia, homeland of Norse myth and of Odin. The elves too are drawn from Norse-Germanic mythology. Finally, we know that the Northern Pagans had a cherished tradition of feasting and celebrating in the depths of winter, in the time of Jól or Yule.

Putting together the Christian legend of the gift-giving Nikolaos of Myra with the Scandinavian lore of Odin and other myths and traditions of the Norse-Germanic Pagans, with just the teeniest little dash of twentieth-to-twenty-first century capitalist consumerism sprinkled on top, we arrive at today's Santa Claus. I take delight in this mixing and mashing of diverse and contradictory elements, all the more when I hear Christians complain about the un-Christian-ness of the materialism and the non-Biblical-ness of Santa's appearance and trappings, and Pagans bemoaning the Christian gloss on (or theft of) Germanic folklore. Relax, folks; this is how human culture works. Everything is regurgitated and recombined over time, with the loose ends still showing that you can trace back to find the roots tapping into much older traditions. I don't think this glorious recombinant confusion is something that started in our so-called "post-modern" age; I think this has always been going on across the ages. Humans are hoarders, tinkerers and cobblers by nature. We hoard little pieces of the past, tinker around with them, adding and subtracting new-old meanings and stories, and cobble together new creations out of the remnants of the old that answer to no one's ideal of purity.

I salute my cheesy little plastic Santa, perched on my window, with a low-wattage bulb lighting up his innards. I see Odin playing tricks on the Bishop of Myra, all the way to Walmart, and the Bishop having a good laugh too.


On a more serious note, I am saddened but not surprised by the tempest in the cable news media teapot sparked by the Dec. 11 comment of Megyn Kelly, hostess of the FOX news program The Kelly File that "Santa Claus just IS you know, kids." Many have criticized Ms. Kelly for offering a racist perspective on Christmas and Santa Claus. Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's news parody program The Daily Show noted on Dec. 12 that Christmas was supposed to be for EVERYONE, implying that Megyn Kelly was wading into racist waters with her insistence on Santa's whiteness. In defense of Megyn Kelly, it should be pointed out that the vast majority of visual representations of Santa Claus DO portray him as, well, an old white man: a rotund, elderly Caucasian male with rosy red cheeks and a flowing white beard. Ms. Kelly's comments came in response to a Dec. 10 blog essay on the Slate web site by Aisha Harris that proposed that since the usual representation of Santa Claus as white was out of keeping with our modern, multi-cultural, inter-racial, poly-ethnic world culture, it might be a nice idea to replace the image of Santa as a jovial old white guy with a penguin, since everyone loves penguins and there would be no possibility of a racial agenda or interpretation being imposed upon such a creature. See

I have some sympathy for all of the viewpoints noted above. Kelly is right that, in reality, Santa Claus is most often portrayed as white; Stewart is correct that Christmas is nowadays meant to be a universal holiday without racial overtones; and Harris makes a valid point that a cute animal icon might be a way out of the racial dilemma posed by the traditional image of the old white Santa. Where Kelly went a little off the rails, in my view, was in her further statement that if people felt uncomfortable with Santa's white image, it was their obligation to get over their discomfort and accept the traditional image rather than expect the tradition to change to suit their sensitivities. Stewart acutely observed, "that is the definition of oppression."

This dilemma of how to take a tradition or image rooted in an earlier, less ethnically diverse place and time and render it suitable for today's multi-ethnic world, in societies such as ours that have struggled so mightily and even heroically to overcome racism and other kinds of prejudice and oppression, is indeed very delicate and complicated. It has direct bearing on modern Pagan religious movements. Pagans living in the twenty-first century must ask themselves how their Pagan gods and goddesses, primarily derived from European cultural traditions, are to be perceived and represented in a time when people of non-white, non-European background may be interested in taking these gods as their personal deities, icons and symbols. The same dilemma holds for non-European based religious revival movements with a strong ethnic component as well. For example, persons of non-African background may well wish to become involved in African or Afro-Caribbean religious traditions such as Santeria, Ife or Voudoun. In each case, should the deities continue to be imagined in the form of the people among whom the religion first developed, or should worshippers or participants with different racial or ethnic origins be allowed to re-interpret the images of the gods in keeping with their own identities?

This is not just a superficial, cosmetic matter of slapping on a few ethnic attributes, such as skin, eye or hair color, to accommodate people of varied ethnic origins and identities. This issue also calls upon us to ask ourselves if the gods are essentially ethnic or racial in nature, or whether ethnic trappings and characteristics are not essential attributes of Pagan divinity. As Odin is the god who I most often relate to in my religious thinking and ritual life, I ask myself, is Odin essentially white, Caucasian, European, or something beyond all of that, something/someone ineffable and transcendent, that happened to find expression in Norse myth and religion? Is Odin a person, with a face, with a certain kind of hair and skin color, or a spiritual essence beyond all of that? In this matter, I think Paganism can learn from the monotheistic traditions which grappled so extensively with the issue of whether their God has any particular form or physicality, or is beyond all such things. Hinduism provides another useful perspective, with the idea that gods are beyond physical form but may temporarily inhabit physical forms, such as statues or temples, to provide darśan to their human devotees. It is likewise in Shinto, where the kami gods are summoned to inhabit particular images on particular occasions, such as rice-gods called down from the mountains to dwell in temples near the rice field for the time of planting and growth, only to be dismissed back to the mountain when the harvest is complete. I also see value in the Jungian perspective, that what we think of as gods may be just our personalized or culturally-determined forms of deeper psychological or spiritual realities.


I went to see the second Thor film, Thor: The Dark World a few nights ago. I didn't expect much, knowing it was mainly a mass-market, special effects-laden, big-bang action-film, and I left the theatre a bit tired from all the repetitive fight sequences that seemed to me more Star Wars than Snorri Sturluson, more Hollywood than Hávamál. One small element in the film does relate to the previous discussion, however. The god Heimdall is portrayed by Idris Elba, a great British actor of African descent, best known for his performance as erudite drug dealer Stringer Bell in the acclaimed American TV series The Wire, and more recently, for his much-praised portrayal of Nelson Mandela in the just-released Mandela film biography Long Walk to Freedom. Mr. Elba's version of Heimdall seemed to work fine in the film, and his brown-skinned appearance had no special import for the sequence of events, one way or another. I did not see the first Thor film and do not know how modern Norse-Germanic Pagans responded to Heimdall's Africanized appearance. Anyone out there want to comment on this?

Another interesting aspect of the film to me was how the Hollywood version of Thor has completely dispensed with the human alter ego that the Marvel comic book Thor once had. This makes Thor all-god, all-the-time. The Don Blake, alter-ego version added more complexity to his character, which the Hollywood Thor could have badly used, in my opinion. He was really rather stiff and uninteresting, all noble virtue and manly courage, quite boring in comparison to the film's clever, cunning and humorous Loki, who was the only character who seemed to possess any notable complexity or depth. However, who is to say how these figures should be portrayed? I take solace in the view that whatever ultimate meaning or reality these gods have, it is beyond any particular representation, but always open to reinterpretation, reinvention and reimagination.


Plastic, six-inch Santa, I once again salute you! May thy plasticity and elusiveness long endure to delight further generations of children and provoke further generations of adults to reflection, befuddlement, and argument!

Hmm, maybe it is Loki having the last word here....

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Season of Silence, and Why

My my my...How the time flies. I can't believe it has been more than two months since I have written in this blog. This autumnal season of silence came about partly for the reasons one might expect: work life very busy, leading to exhaustion capped by a touch of illness. Tra-la-la! There was also a more pleasant reason for my inability to find the time or energy to write here. I had a trip to Lithuania to participate in a project aiming at promoting inter-religious tourism in Lithuania and Latvia, both of which are lands blessed with amazingly rich histories of religious diversity, from their Pagan heritage to their long histories of Jewish and Muslim communities along with varied Christan contributions. This was a great pleasure but also quite exhausting.

There is however, another reason for my persistent silence. I am finding the current state of American society and politics so depressing, so frustrating, that I feel a growing sense of hopelessness for this country of my birth. The forces of obstruction and ignorance are so many and so immense in our declining, divided, self-destructive nation. I can only compare our situation to scenarios imagined in mythology and religious prophecy, like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that usher in devastation and destruction in the Biblical Book of Revelations, or the ten plagues that descend upon Egypt in Exodus, or the dark forces that take down the world in flames and flood in Norse Ragnarok, or the dread dance of Shiva that beats out its world-crushing rhythm when humanity has become so stupid, so cruel, so lost, so impervious to guidance or wisdom that the gods decide that the world must be put out of its misery and cleared away to make space for a new world yet to come.

We today in America are facing a really sinister and powerful combination of retrograde forces. These range from carbon-based energy industries that do not want to see any movement toward a greener, healthier planet and economy, to the gun lobby that refuses to even consider very modest measures to reduce the danger of guns and gun-related materials falling into the possession of mentally imbalanced individuals who go on shooting rampages or into the hands of immature youths who are eager to settle scores with bullets. The list goes on to include the greedy, self-important minority of super-wealthy plutocrats who do not wish to see higher wages for people at lower strata of our highly unequal and unfair economy, to the Tea Partiers and libertarians who do not want the government to do anything besides putting people in prison and maintaining a grossly oversized military whose continued existence and immense expenditures can only be justified by continual conflict and crisis and propaganda inflaming our fear and hatred against whichever foreign country is now top of our enemy-of-the year list. I fear that our interlinked military-intelligence-industrial-political sectors will keep pushing us to either use or threaten to use force overseas as often as possible, even though this may only inflames others against us. Then we have the disheartening spectacle of the Supreme Court that is gutting and discarding decades of Civil Rights progress and returning us to a time when state and local politicians could enact all kinds of barriers to prevent African-Americans or other disfavored social groups from having any voice in our supposed "democracy," which the Court has also damaged terribly by allowing more freedom for wealthy individuals and corporations to dominate the political process through unlimited political advertising and financial contributions to the causes that perpetuate their interest and privilege.

In the embattled world of academia, which I know from the inside, the forces of misguided "reform" seem to be pushing us in the direction of a standardized, bureaucratized, heavily managed and number-driven form of education in which teachers will have little autonomy or job security, and in which liberal arts education, which can waken people to higher visions of life and a desire to create a more equal and less cruel society, will be pushed aside by an obsession with job-training out of a mistaken belief that training young people with the right technical skills will somehow overcome the problems of corporations seeking to send jobs overseas to lower-paid workers, or to bring lower-paid workers to America to replace highly skilled workers here, so that the majority of college graduates, even if highly trained and skilled will have to compete for low-paying jobs in corporations that refuse to share their profits with their workers. If we do not change the rules of the economic game, simply training people will solve nothing. Since the 1970s, American workers have become more and more productive, but rarely been allowed to enjoy a fair share of the profits generated by their productivity, and unless we have a revived labor movement or some other mechanism to force companies to pay better, there seems little hope for the American worker.

And as for the media's favorite pipe dream that high-tech millionaires and billionaires will show us the way, let's not forget that it was great geniuses like Steve Jobs who sent so much high-tech manufacturing to countries like China and India. Entrepreneurs will never lead the way to a more equal economy. They often make their millions and billions from the hard labor of workers who are paid as little as possible. It will require some kind of external pressure to force the high-tech folks to share much with the common man and woman. The popular adulation of high-tech entrepreneurs as economic saviors is a joke. They are in it for themselves, not for us. And since our government is increasingly at the beck and call of consummately greedy and self-interested companies and corporations, not only the high-tech toy-makers but also the oil companies, the multinational banks, the pharmaceutical industry, Wall Street financial firms and so on, I find it hard to escape the conclusion that we are entering a new Middle Ages, in which a small class of ruling elite will live in splendor, in beautiful mansions, surrounded by servants and flatterers, like kings and barons living in castles of olden times--and aren't our modern gated communities just an updated form of castle fortresses?--while the rest of us will eke out an insecure living through hard labor, deeply in debt, but unable to challenge our social superiors.

I am mentally and emotionally exhausted. That is why I am not writing much these days. I look for rays of hope, but see so very few. The advent of the Affordable Health Care Act, aka Obamacare, a modest attempt to re-structure our primarily corporate health care system to provide better care to more people, has only unleashed new ferocity among the various groups who oppose any kind of government activity apart from military action, and see any kind of social reform or even the slightest effort to provide assistance to the growing ranks of poor and needy persons in our society as a foul betrayal of freedom and liberty. I see anti-government zealots ready to cut food benefits to the hungry and who smile when 800,00 government workers are cut off from their salaries for weeks on end, and who don't even care if their actions push the international economy to the brink of financial disaster. I see the President mocked when he tries to negotiate peace with Iran.

The only comfort to me right now is the election of Bill DiBlasio to the office of the mayor of New York City. At last, a leader who speak about income inequality and rising poverty as problems that all society, and especially government, must address. His election is an answer to those who dismissed the Occupy Wall Street movement nearly two years ago as a silly, leaderless, rudderless social fad that would have no effect. It was the Occupy movement elevating the issues of financial institution greed and wealth inequality in New York that lit the spark that became the bright light of the DiBlasio candidacy. No doubt DiBlasio will not be able to satisfy all the hopes and ambitions of those who supported him, but I think he will at least try to push back against the trend toward plutocracy that is at the heart of so many of our ills. I am glad to see someone, somewhere, making some kind of stand and articulating an alternative vision.

But sadly...anyone who knows America knows that New York City is an anomaly in this country. I live some distance from NYC, and I know that many of my fellow citizens here believe the old Reaganite narrative constantly reiterated by right-wing media like FOX, but increasingly in evidence across the culture, that "government is the problem" and that cutting taxes, shrinking government, and "unleashing" business and entrepreneurship are the solutions, that the military is sacred and that we must "support the troops" and never question what the troops are called upon to do and why, nor the effects of those actions, and that if you are not a "success" in America--something measured primarily, if not exclusively in materialistic, money-making terms--that you only have yourself to blame. The alternate, liberal narrative of "we are all in this together," and that we could use government as a vehicle to share out resources to create a better life for everyone, not just the elite few, is not convincing to most people.

I am facing the reality that the things I really believe in may no longer have any place,or at the very best, only a very marginal,vestigial place in this sad, misguided, self-delusional and self-destructive country, this very dis-United States of America. The pendulum may someday swing back to more equality and compassion in this country, but I don't see it happening in my lifetime.

It is these thoughts that crush me into silence. Perhaps this will spark a renewal of my spirituality; I hope so. Maybe it is time to turn inward, and to seek refuge with other spiritual refugees in this very hard and fearful time, while no longer expecting the larger society to improve or change very much, at least not in any foreseeable future. The Buddha taught that the fundamental truth of life is suffering, and that this is the starting point of spiritual insight. Perhaps that is the crossroads that I am facing. I don't know. All I know is that it seems very dark outside indeed.
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