The God We Never Knew

I recently decided to go back and read all the books on my bookshelf I’ve never read. There are many.

The first book I’ve been reading in this project is The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith by Marcus J. Borg. I bought it under the suggestion of my doctor in Alabama–she saw me reading a book called Why Christianity Must Change or Die a few years ago, and suggested I read this author, whispering that there are people like that in Alabama, they just keep quiet about themselves.

So I bought the book, but have been avoiding it for fear of being irritated at all the Christian theology. But I haven’t been at all. There have only been one or two times in this book where I’ve rolled my eyes internally.

No, this author gets it. He knows the point of faith, and that it has nothing to do with the afterlife. Sure, I find it a little annoying that he states that he uses the terms “God,” “Spirit” and “the Divine” interchageably, but the Christianity he proposes solves many of the same problems with traditional Christianity and Christian culture that made me leave it in the first place. Plus, he’s working from the same kind of place I am as a pseudo-reconstructionist. He really knows the history of the Bible, and has studied what the words would have meant at the time they were written. And sometimes they mean very different things than the meaning generally given them in modern times. Those other meanings clarify Christian theology and his knowledge of history gives him the space to really find God, the way that I think knowing of the history of the Heathen faith clarifies and allows for my worship of Freyja.

I even found a few chapters very thought-provoking when viewed from the lens of a pagan, and I figured I would share some of these thoughts with you guys.

Christianity as Superego

One of the problems he sees with mainstream Christianity is its complicated relationship to the superego. Because of all the focus on sin, the religion actively reinforces the superego of its followers, who are then seeking a closer relationship with the religion in order to escape their overactive superegos.

This reminded me of my days as a Christian, when I had (I still do) a quite overactive superego. I was afraid of doing anything against the rules, going so far as to basically make up nonexistent rules that I was afraid of breaking. And I remember that snake of the superego leaving me the moment I decided to convert.

I still don’t want to break rules, but I’m much more reasonable about it now.

In any case, I was thinking about how wonderful paganism is in that it has helped me becomes friends with my id. Most of the people in this culture are too enculturated, we are all too big of friends with our egos and superegos, interested in what we can do or have and what we should or shouldn’t do or have. But in pagan rituals, I take a step back from all that and just be in the animal part of my brain, my ego, utterly at awe and surrendered to the flesh and the gods and the cosmos. And that tempers the ego and the superego that act so much of the time, and that balances me out and makes me much happier.

Images Relating to Values

One of the sections in this book talks about the different metaphors or images of God that have been written about throughout the centuries. He explores God as king, as lover, as rock, as mother, as wisdom, as journey companion, as father. And the he makes a very good point–the values of a Christian are directly related to his or her image of God. “For the monarchical model, sin is primarily disloyalty to the king, seen especially as disobedience to the laws…For the metaphor of God as lover, sin is unfaithfulness–that is, sin is going after other lovers. This is a classic image for idolatry…For the metaphor of God as the compassionate one who cares for all her children, sin is failure in compassion” (Borg 77-78).

That got me thinking about how my images of the divine (that being, multiple deities but primarily Freyja) influence what I think of as right action and ideas. Polytheism (that there are multiple deities with multiple ideas about the world) shows me that there is no ultimate truth and that everything is viewed from different lenses. Thor and Odin will take very different approaches to an encounter with a giant, but neither is wrong. And neither is morality so specific. But, given my image of the divine as being primarily Freyja, as she who I am closest to, I think that my ideas about values have a specific lens. For me, shunning beauty would be bad, though for many ascentics it is the correct thing to do. I want to fully enjoy life and sex, and I want to learn magic. I want to spread beauty wherever I go. That is what I learn from Freyja.

God(s) as doing, leading, or giving examples

I thought about the different relationships people have to gods while he was quoting a psalm that says “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” This suggests to me a relationship with God wherein God in doing your life for you. All spirituality is acted within the person through the actions of god, leaving the worshiper to be a pawn. I don’t like this model of relationship to the divine. It’s not a real relationship. There is no free will, no give and take, no gifts in exchange for gifts. It is simply as if God is living millions of lives simultaneously instead of anyone living their own.

Then I thought about other relationships to the divine, and I think the other two primary ones are leading and giving example. Many Christians I know follow by example–the WWJD bracelets everyone had when I was a kid are a good example of that. They look to how their god lived and follow that example. Some heathens do that, but not many, I think. I certainly look to Freyja for inspiration, but wouldn’t exactly say I live my life by her example. I don’t have multiple sex partners, for one thing.

My relationship to Freyja, and the one I perceive most pagans as having, is the gods leading us in our lives. They give us hints about where to go, but it is ultimately us doing the living and making the choices.

To finish, I’m just going to say that I’ve enjoyed reading this book. I feel much more at ease with Christian theology after understanding where it came from. I think the theology in this book answers many of the same questions pagans have, and therefore sheds some light onto what kinds of questions we’re asking. And it’s always fun to read a book by a person with a relationship with a god who really gets it. His chapter on mysticism was particularly helpful in that regard–a reminder that sacred story and reenacting and dancing (ok, maybe he doesn’t really talk about dancing) are a way to the gods, and that any tradition can get you there.

Spirituality and the Internet

Oooh! The allure of the internet and it's endless informations!

I’ve been perusing pagan blogs the past few days, and it’s got me to thinking about the relationship between my spirituality and the internet.

On the one hand, the internet is absolutely essential to my spirituality. Religion is, after all, an exercise in connectedness and the internet helps connect the world in ways that were previously inconceivable. Through the internet, there are people I would consider close personal friends who I have never even met. I am able to maintain friendships with people in other countries it would be too expensive to phone. And I have found my faith.

I am endlessly in awe and inspired by the writings and observations of other spiritual people on the internet. Reading their experiences inspires me to go out and have faith, to remember the beauty that is the gods, to look at them in new ways I had not yet considered. Because of the internet, I have been exposed to the faith I have chosen. I have made friends who have helped lead me to the path I now walk. You have shown me the historical information that lead to epiphanies–like the Egtved girl spawing an epiphany about dancing’s place in heathenry. You have shown me that it’s okay to talk to gods, to have a personal relationship with them. You have given me ideas about altar spaces and temples. Through the internet I learned to brew mead. But mostly, it’s the pure inspiration of reading other people’s experiences of faith.

For actual information, a library would probably be quite useful, and I do enjoy reading books quite thoroughly. But there’s something you can’t read in a library–personal experience. Most religious people get their ideas about religious experience from their friends and coreligionists, the people they go to church or temple or mosque with. But, due to our small numbers, I have only met a handful of pagans in my life, and even fewer heathens. And so I haven’t been able to learn all that much about how to live as a pagan from my friends. I have learned it from the internet.

I have read blogs and essays detailing how they’ve built an altar, what it feels or sounds like to have a god speak to you. I have learned, because of the internet, the importance of focusing on landwights and how to connect to my ancestors even if I don’t much like them.

So I guess, suffice it to say, the internet is, for me, a sort of temple. It’s the gathering place of the pagans, where I am inspired and where I have learned my faith.

It’s interesting to me, though, how much talk of not being on the internet I read among pagans. A bunch of pagans I know (myself included) take purposeful breaks from the internet or purposefully pare down our internet time because, as pagans, we wish, foremost, to live our lives. And that doesn’t mean sitting in front of a computer.

I think we’re awfully ambivalent about the internet, really.

But I guess what it really comes down to is that the internet, like everything else, is a tool. It can be, for pagans, one of the most profound, inspiring, transformative tools in our arsenal, encouraging us to go out and live as pagans, to have the confidence that we’re not alone, to have a religious community spanning the globe. And it can be harmful if we get too distracted by some of its other uses–mindlessly looking around for entertaining videos or repeatedly checking to see if we have a new email.

Anyway, despite its tendencies toward distraction, I would like to thank the internet for giving me the wonderful life I have, my relationship with Freyja and the other gods, and, ultimately, the fact that I have now lived the past 3 and a half years in joy rather than the depression of my youth.  Thanks, internet.

Dance is Attractive

Before I start, I just want to make an observation of how strange the comings and goings of Wyrd are. Just last night, I was lying in  bed telling Gent all about how I miss my friends, especially friends I talk to about religion. Then it was SO HOT today, so I skipped dance class and Gent and I went out to dinner at a local air conditioned restaurant, and in walks the only real friend I’ve made since moving to this city and a friend of hers. They joined us for dinner, and we had wonderful conversation that included religious discussion.

I am continually amazed by the way that the universe runs in such a way that wishes come true.

Now on to the main subject of today’s blog post–the way that people can’t help but watch dance.

See? They can't take their eyes off him and his awesome moves.

I’ve been noticing this lately, as I’ve been having rehearsals in a studio whose (glass) door opens to South Street, which is a very popular street in Philadelphia. As we rehearse, all kinds of people walk by. And nearly every single one of them stops to watch us dance for a moment.

This past weekend at the 4th of July festival, there were a couple of dance performers, surrounded entirely by crowds of people trying to see.

Last week, I performed a show at a bar. Every other act was ignored completely, but once we started dancing, all eyes in the bar faced us.

What is it that makes people so keen to watch us? Why is what we’re doing so interesting? More people stop to peek through the glass windows than stop to watch street musicians in the city, and people are always talking about how music is the language of the soul and all that.

Which it is, assuming you believe in a soul, which I don’t. But still, music is important. But dance is something else. Dance isn’t the language of the soul, but of the body. And I think people are intrinsically fascinated by it. They like to see what other people can do with their bodies. They like to see what is possible to do with a body, and to relate to the kinesthesia of it.

Watching dance is a kind of way to experience pure movement vicariously through the dancer. Watching dance feels almost like dancing. It’s a way to experience an extraphysical kinesthetic sensation. We can watch a dancer and feel them move through our bodies. We can connect to other people, we can have skills we don’t have, we can feel the beat pulsing through their chests.

We can connect to a greater something than we otherwise can, while we watch someone dance. Because everyone has a body, we can all relate to the way other people feel when they move their body.

I feel like I’m being redundant and at the same time not getting at what I want to say. Alas, such is the reason dance is a physical and not a verbal enterprise. But here is my last attempt: if being a dancer is like writing poetry, watching dance is like reading it. It is the pure joy of receiving the art form, even as the dancer herself is receiving the art from some other place–the universe, or else her own subconscious. The dance is fighting its way out of the ether, filtering itself into the physical world through the dancer, and then blessing the person who watches it. It is the language of the body, the humans most physical being speaking its way into the world, sharing its secrets, showing its history. The most full connection to the earth we are made of.

I understand the flowers growing and the birds flying and the death of the leaves in autumn by dancing. I know what it is to be, to feel, to find home most when I dance. Martha Graham and Bertram RossAs Martha Graham has said “Dance is the language of the universe concentrated in the individual.”

As I’ve said before, I think all heathens should dance. The only reason I have ever heard anyone say they don’t like to dance was that they think they’re bad at it. But if you don’t want to dance, because you think you’re bad at it or some other reason (if this is you, please share with me why), you can still learn something about the physical, spiritual, transcendent nature of the human body by watching other people dance, by watching the transformation that happens when they dance.

“To watch us dance is to hear our hearts sing” -Hopi saying