I’ve been reading The Archdruid Report and other works by John Michael Greer lately, and it’s been giving me a lot of space for thought. Lately, he’s been discussing the Religion of Progress. Many of the problems our society is dealing with right now are a result of our ideas about progress, our belief that the future will always and everywhere be better than the present and the past. And I’ve been thinking about how pervasive this is.
I’ve been thinking especially about the meaning of “spiritual progress” and “growing spiritually.” I have to admit, I have no idea what this means from a pagan context. Other religions, sure—Buddhists grow in their understanding of the four noble truths and progress toward Enlightenment. Christians grow in their understanding of scripture and avoidance of sin. But what does it mean to pagans to make progress?
I ask this because I notice it’s something we talk about all the time. Our society in general seems to think that all change is progress toward some brighter future. But I’ve been thinking lately that maybe it’s important to pay closer attention to the difference between change and progress.
Sure, lots and lots of things have changed in the six and a half years or so that I’ve been a pagan: I’ve finished college, gotten married, made a life for myself. I’ve learned the ins and outs of Norse mythology and pagan theological concepts. I’ve begun to learn to garden, I have found an argument for dance, and I have had an article published in Hex Magazine. I have been diagnosed with alopecia and learned (mostly) to accept that. I have developed close relationships with at least two or three deities, have learned to listen to the natural world and its spirits, and have begun to develop a spiritual relationship with my ancestors.
But is any of that really progress? Or is it more like evolution, a natural aimless wandering and spreading of life, than like progress, an arrow shooting toward a goal? Few of these things have happened because they were goals I set out towards—graduating, getting married. But the rest of them were just change that comes from the passage of time.
When I first came into paganism, one thing I remember reading that made no sense to me at the time was that pagans see time as a circle, rather than as a line. It makes complete sense to me now. I’ve been reading back through old posts the past few days, and I realized that my life really has measured time more in circles than in lines. Look, and you will see that every spring I have a rash of posts about the spring and how I’m happy and feeling spiritual again. Every winter I turn inward and get sad and forget to be religious by the end. Even lives are circles that trace the path of the Grand Human Narrative—be born, learn some thing, fall in love, be heartbroken, experience loss, die. Is it really progress to learn things, when it’s really just the nature of humanity to learn most of those things?
If it’s true that pagans believe that time is circular, as many say do, then language about our own spiritual progress is detrimental to that grand narrative that could change the world. Now, please, don’t get me wrong and think I’m saying that paganism is uniquely suited to bring humanity to a new and brighter future. I’m not (because then I’d be contributing to the narrative of progress!). But dismantling the religion of progress is helpful in allowing us to grapple with and handle the predicaments we find ourselves in. Climate change, for example, cannot be solved by people who desperately believe that the world always and everywhere moves from worse to better. We have to be able to see that things can get much worse, or we are blind to our own problems.
Believing that time is circular can bring useful change. If time is circular, we are no longer the pinnacle of history. We are merely the pinnacle of this current round of history, of civilizations rising and falling through time. And just as every other time in history, what goes up must come down.
Language is so central to how we understand the world. What would happen if we stopped talking about our spiritual progress and began focusing more on our spiritual cycles? Or on the fact that most of the time, change simply is change, not with any greater meaning of positives and negatives? Perhaps we aren’t making progress, but are simply spinning through the cycles of a human life, of our feelings in regards to how long the sun shines on any given day, of rainfall and the growth and dieback (and sometimes regrowth from the shrunken core) of our relationships and life experiences.
Growth is not forever—the harvest comes, and then the winter.