Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Spiritual Indecision...Or Do You Call It Pluralism?

A fair number of comments to this blog have raised provocative questions and heartfelt concerns about the linkage between ethnicity, including the problematic concept of "race," and Pagan spiritual traditions in much of modern-day Paganism or neo-Paganism. This is something I have also struggled with, and I am not yet sure who or what has won the struggle!

I have divided loyalties between two different European Pagan traditions, the Norse or Nordic Paganism of Iceland and Scandinavia, and the Baltic Paganism of Lithuania and Latvia. I have Czech and Lithuanian ancestry, but was exposed to Norse mythology at an early age--I am not ashamed to admit it was through the comic book "The Mighty Thor!!"--but always felt a great curiosity about Lithuania, from dribs and drabs that my mother would relate to us, based on her mother's recollections of her childhood in Lithuania in the early 20th century. In undergraduate college, I did a research paper on Nazi appropriations of Norse mythology--highly ironic as I am now working on a somewhat higher level research paper on the same topic that I hope to publish in a scholarly journal like "Nova Religio" or "The Pomegranate." When I started graduate school in the mid-1980s, I made Norse Mythology one of my areas of study. This carried on with study of the Old Norse language at the University of Wisconsin at the end of that decade, and led me to obtain a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Iceland in the mid-1990s, which led to participation in Asatru Fellowship activities in the Reykjavik area, and continuing connections with Iceland and Asatru.

However, the same year that I went to Iceland, I also went to Lithuania, where I came to know Jonas and Inija Trinkunas, the husband and wife leaders of the Lithuanian Pagan group Romuva. This led to further visits in 1998 and 2002. A bit later, after teaching in Japan several years, I scored a second Fulbright Fellowship to teach at Siauliai University in Lithuania from fall of 2004 to spring of 2005, and was once more highly impressed by Lithuanian spirituality, but also frustrated at my inability to learn the Lithuanian language, which was really necessary for me to fully participate in Romuva.

I came back to the USA in 2005 with a pragmatic sense that I would henceforth concentrate on forging links with people involved in Nordic Paganism, largely because it was more accessible with most of the materials being translated into English, with several generations of Asatru in America having developed a workable American version of Nordic Paganism. However, I still feel connected to Lithuania and Romuva, and do not by any means renounce my ties to them. (Hey, what's the point of being polytheistic if you can't be pluralistic?) I see the traditions as kindred branches of the Indo-European spiritual tree, anyway, with Perkunas being the Lithuanian version of Thor, and Velnias being the Lithuanian version of Odin, and the Lithuanian World Tree being no less of a vivid symbol of interconnectedness between mankind and nature than Yggdrasil in Norse mythology. In many ways, I see myself as an Indo-Europeanist, which also allows me to feel at home in other related spiritual traditions like Hinduism.

However, I am such a shameless spiritual slut, or religious eclectic, anyway, that I cannot really accept being walled off from other traditions that appeal and make sense to me. Having lived in Japan from 1999-2004, I am very appreciative of Shinto, which of all religions I have known, is the one whose closeness to nature has most impressed me. When I pray to my various gods, spirits and ancestors, I often bow and clap my hands twice, Shinto-style, and I do not imagine that Odin or whoever else I am addressing feels slighted by this elegant and respectful gesture. Furthermore, my analytical mind tells me that all names and forms of the "divine" (or whatever you want to call It) are just provisional place markers to help the human psyche reach out to something beyond yet deep within itself; however, I find certain god-images and personalities emotionally moving. And, at the risk of sounding ridiculous--and I can assure you I am not saying this in a flippant way--I like the fact that in religion, we can return to the child in us who enjoys playing with dolls and toy figures. I think that play is actually highly significant.

An acquaintance of mine in Sweden made a very pertinent point about this kind of eclecticism. He told me that he likes to worship the Scandinavian goddess Freyja, and has also taught his daughter to do the same, but that if she were to decide to instead worship the Greek goddess Diana, he would not have a problem with it, as he sees them as ultimately meaning very much the same thing. However, he would PREFER that she worship Freyja, as this would be more in keeping with their particular cultural and ethnic context, but he would not insist on it. I think that is a lovely attitude, and I am grateful to him for sharing that.


Matt BP said...

I have been looking into Asatru for the simple fact that it offers more rigidity than the fluidity of modern Paganism. I certainly feel torn between the two on occasions. I think ultimately I am an Awenyddion, a Cymro Pagan dream poet, or shaman.
Thats certainly how I channel myself into my paintings.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

A major problem, in my opinion, is that we sometimes imagine ancient peoples as practicing neatly separated mutually exclusive ethnically/culturally based hyphenated-Paganisms.

I think it's time to junk the hopelessly vague idea that at one time there were "pure" religions. There are always going to be people inclined toward eclecticism and xenophilia to varying degrees, and they will always find ways of acting on that inclination - explanations/justifications usually come later.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

During my association with Heathens, they didn't like my fluidity either. For me its not even about worship. Its about creativity. I am walking through life, experiencing different souls and modalities, and these different images, and entities and mythologies emerge without my bidding. I rather enjoyed it. If that makes me a slut--well, lets just say I have done an in depth study of that word from a variety of angles anyhow. Sluts refused to be fenced in by what society deems controls put on the individual, so that they can be easily defined as someone's property. A slut doesn't have a leash. Spiritual or otherwise.

I cannot, nor would I want to help it, that I am open to these influences. That I can see and interact with realities on that level. I know it scares others for a variety of reasons, they liking their rigidity--it is comforting like walls that hold out the wind and the rain.

I prefer the wind and the rain. I prefer the sky and grass and the ice, and the rushing water, and the small noises made by animals passing through under the sun or the moon. I don't begrudge others their walls, but I often wonder why they cannot return the favor, for me, who prefers to be who she is, rather than what others imagine I should be.

To me its ridiculous. I have had certain deities that I felt close too, but it was as if others had my phone number and wanted to chat. For whatever reason. But according to some, I was to ignore that phone and put on call block, and pretend that I had been pinned in some frat ceremony so that I only belonged to whomever they imagined was "right" for me.

Silly me, I even tried it. It just ruined everything. I am not sure I have forgiven them for being so rigid and unseeing, nor myself, for not listening to my instincts.

Punk Canibal said...

Hi, there, Professor!

You might be familiar to the writings of Johan Huizinga and Paul Veyne about the link between beleifs and play.
For me, it's a way to tackle such dilemas you experience. Truth is, somehow, a matter of eficacy and gambling. We create it as well as discover it together with our gods.

Anonymous said...

I can tell you that for me, I draw a tremendous amount of inspiration from Celtic paganism of various forms, as well as inspiration from a variety of other sources. In the end, however, interaction with the Otherworld directly is what I consider to be the "Prime Mover" of my spiritual and religious outlook. Always taking primacy over Celtic cultural tradition or other external sources of wisdom.

I am an American, a slightly odd American, but an American nonetheless. My cultural experience is based on growing up on the Front Range of Colorado and the unique quirks and worldviews of my home. I think it matters very little where you draw your inspiration from, it really only matters how you weave those various threads of inspiration together. That's the real challenge.

null2099 said...

I can understand an relate. I grew up with those same comics, and read the Eddas in high school. My family is also Polish and Yugoslavian and I would ry much like to learn more along those paths. I have not been able to find much here in Michigan. In fact, my only "formal" training is in Peruvian shamanism!

Seeing Eye Chick said...

"A major problem, in my opinion, is that we sometimes imagine ancient peoples as practicing neatly separated mutually exclusive ethnically/culturally based hyphenated-Paganisms."

Dead on Apulius!

In the market place of ideas, this certainly leads to Convenience Store thinking.

Pitch313 said...

I think that the Neo-Pagan movement has placed too much emphasis on the linkage of spirituality and ancestral ethnicity. In North America, I suspect that a great deal of this emphasis arouse in response to the cultural discontinuities of immigration and adaptation to a diverse society undergoing rapid change.

I have come to accept that--for Neo-Pagan practitioners--deities and guardians and energies of any historical culture and from many imagined ones may choose any human practitioner. Regardless of the human practitioner's ethnic or cultural heritage.

Yes, we may go to the deities of our ethnic heritage. But also Yes, deities of their own accord may come to us. That's how practice happens.

Another way to say much the same thing--My forebearers immigrated to North America from various territories in Europe. But I am a Californian. That's my primary ethnic and my primary cultural identity. My metapantheon represents the inherent richness, diversity, and postmodernity of California.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Dead Eye Chick: "In the market place of ideas, this certainly leads to Convenience Store thinking."

Very apt. It's one thing to shop at a convenience store occasionally - like when you want to get some beer and the the liquor stores are closed. But it is another thing when one's whole diet consists only of what one can purchase at the nearest 7-11.

So my proposed corollary is that this "convenience store thinking" can lead to an inner life that is the spiritual equivalent of a diet of Mountain Dew and Slim Jims.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

The scary part Apulius is that someone would find a way to market Dew and Meatsocks as a viable spiritual thing, and there would be people who would buy it, live it and love it.

Maelstrom said...

When I was in graduate school for Religious Studies, I used to joke with my fellow starving grad students that what we REALLY needed to do to get rich quick was to drop the foolish pursuit of a PhD and instead pursue MBAs so that we could develop and market our own New Age cults. My idea was an expensive-to-join and thus highly profitable little cult centered on the worship of a cunningly trained parrot, which would endlessly repeat flattering phrases like "You are a beautiful soul....You are the center of the universe.... You are the meaning of creation....Prosper ye well and donate ye much." I still think this is a good idea, don't know why I am wasting time with this blog. It seems to me that Americans (and not only Americans) have an endless appetite for narcissism and self-flattery, and that many modern-day forms of religions, particularly New Agey things, do cater to that. I rather like that in Norse Paganism there is precious little flattery and no guarantees of any fluffy sweet salvation. Would it be so wrong to run the Cult of the Kindly Parrot as a side-business?

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Okay Maelstrom, I have to blog in return to this one its just too big to put in your comment space.

Matt BP said...

SEC couldn't you bullet point it for the rest of us?!?

My best friend is a great example of the errant spiritual sampler type. He flits from cult to fad to regime, gathering little bits from each as he goes. I reckon one day he'll have a faith epiphany and start his own religion.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Too Late. I already posted it. The good news it isn't long. I backlinked to here though. I thought this discussion had a broader application than just Heathens or Pagans. To me, Maelstrom hit upon something bigger and more elemental.

Maelstrom said...

Chick-who-sees-with-Eye, where did you post your extra comment? I cannot find it. About the scope of this blog, I do mainly mean for it to be about the interface of politics and Paganism, and by Paganism I mean spiritual traditions derived from native European religions, but I am fine with any tangents that are interesting (and coherent!)

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Gods that cracks me up Maelstrom--You make me think of the Stygian Witches from Clash of the Titans:

"Give us the Eye! The Eyeeeeee!"


The post you are looking for is near the top.

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