Temperance, Terror, Torch, Torture

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Temperance

Ultimately, temperance comes from Latin tempus, “time”. No one knows where Latin picked up tempus – most likely from some nearby language, such as Etruscan. In any case, it’s also the root of words such as temple, temporary, tempo, extemporize, and tempest. From tempus came the Latin verb temperare, “to mix properly, moderate, blend”, in the sense of cooking or preparing something to the proper time. This was the source of temper (Old English temprian), and also of the Latin noun temperantia, “moderation”. Temperantia was borrowed into Anglo-French (i.e. the French spoken by the upper-classes in England after William the Conqueror) as temperaunce, which became temperance by the mid-1300’s.

The very oldest versions of the Temperance Tarot card show a figure mixing water into wine, thereby showing temperantia, moderation.

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The Pagan Knot: Why ‘Pagan’ Is The Perfect Name For Us

Scott Reimers over at Patheos wrote a fascinating post recently suggesting that ‘Pagan’ was an unfortunate name for our religion (or family of religions) and that we should change it. Why? Because, according to Reimers, it’s not really a word for what we are so much as a word for what we’re not:

The ONE defining universal trait among Pagans is that WE ARE NOT CHRISTIANS… If you think about it, the major reason that “Pagans” hang together is because it’s so nice to interact with people who don’t assume that we should act a certain way to be the right flavor of Jewish, Christian or Islamic.

He goes on to argue that this is unhealthy for our community:

Our very title pushes us toward fear and separation.  Christians verses Pagans.  Us verses Them… It is time to change this.  It is time to intentionally adopt values that are universal, re-title ourselves and grow past identifying ourselves as Pagan.

He suggests instead inventing a term — “PagAND” — which emphasizes the value of tolerance among all pagan branches and other religions:

Rather than trying to figure out what we all share, I advocate that in tolerance, we agree to celebrate NOT SHARING. Let’s make the conscious decision to defend everyone’s right to practice our own weird faith… this time including the Christians… [This would be] the difference between focusing on excluding others and declaring that we are a part of a group with an intentional focus on living the wonderful principle of tolerance.

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Sacrifice, Sacrilegious, Savior

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Sacrifice

Sacrifice comes from Latin sacrificium, meaning “sacred action” (from sacra, “sacred”, and ficium, “to do”). It was used to refer to the performance of any priestly duties. Since these duties almost always involved giving something to the gods, sacrifice came to mean, first, giving something up to Spirit, and then later (in the late 1500’s in English) giving something up in general.

As for sacra “sacred”, it derives ultimately from Proto Indo European sak, meaning “sanctify”; and it is the basis for consecrate, sacerdotal, saint, sanctum, sacrosanct, and sanctify.

Sacrifice’s primary syllable, sac, is identical with that ancient Proto Indo European root sak from 8,000 years ago. It indicates directed, balanced energy (”sa”) pouring into a container (”k”); metaphorically, then, the energy is the sacrifice, and Spirit is the container. The same phonosemantics work for the rather more mundane word sack.

Thanks to Erik for suggesting this word of the day.

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The Tie that Binds: a Meditation on Love and War

Why are people violent?

Years ago, during a visualization meditation on physical violence (I wanted to try and get at the root of it, to understand where it came from), I found myself on a path edged with tall, tangled bushes. Their branches were bowed with huge blossoms and masses of matted leaves. The air was hot and heavy with humidity, and the sun was high and blistering. Up ahead, around a corner, I could hear voices shouting in anger.

People say that humans are violent because it’s just in our nature to be so, but for me that isn’t a satisfying answer (and there is recent evidence against it). Even if it’s true, it doesn’t explain why it’s in our nature; and it offers no solutions for preventing or mitigating violence.

Something that also puzzled me was the high incidence of violence in European culture. Europeans and European-derived cultures have become much more peaceful in the last couple of hundred years, but for a long time we were among the most violent on earth. The histories of China, Japan, Africa, and the Americas are not bloodless by a long shot, but compared to the history of Europe, they’re like pacifistic fairy-tales. Of course there were wars in these areas, but they tended to be either brief periods of intense violence followed by long years of peace, or else millennia of small-scale, ritualistic tribal struggles. But from the end of Pax Romana to the World Wars, Europe has almost always been at war. You can get a visual, visceral view of this at this site, which maps all the wars and battles of human history on a single Google map.

It’s particularly odd because the religion of Europe during those two thousand years was Christianity, which preaches peace and love quite insistently. What’s going on here?

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The World’s Doctrine: How Nature Teaches Us To Be Human

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. – Emerson

Most modern religions have doctrine: holy books, sacred scripture, lists of quoted dogma from sainted heads, annals of kings and battles adjudicated by the eternal powers, recipes for weddings and births and deaths, and so on. Beliefs to be memorized.

I’ve written at length about doctrine and dogma before, and I think it’s dangerous stuff. Instead of opening the mind and allowing spiritual growth and development, doctrine shuts everything down. It can be valuable to have blind faith in some things, for a while, at least; but to keep yourself open to the world and to Spirit, it’s essential to keep your mind alert to new experiences that might contradict your faith. You have to believe in something, but hold your beliefs lightly.

Pagans generally avoid doctrine. Instead of big books of instructions, we rely on two currents: tradition and nature.

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Om, Pagan, Paradise

My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!

Om

From Wikipedia:

OM is a mystical or sacred syllable in the Dharmic [i.e. Hinduism, Buddhism, and other closely related] religions. It is placed at the beginning of most Hindu texts as a sacred exclamation to be uttered at the beginning and end of a reading of the Vedas or previously to any prayer or mantra.

Wikipedia also compares Om to Amen; in this connection it’s interesting to add also the Revival Druid exhortation Awen.

It first appears in ancient Vedic Sanskrit manuscripts, meaning something like “yes”, “verily”, “so be it” — much like Amen. As time went on and Hinduism developed, it came to mean something much more profound. It is variously described as

  • a magnificent syllable for meditation
  • the goal of all spritual practice
  • the utterance of the perfect soul at death
  • the voice of God
  • the mystic name of the union of Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma
  • the principle of three-in-one
  • the sound of the universe’s vibration

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Nature and Social Insanity

I’ve been talking with Alison a lot over the past week about insanity — particularly insanity in societies. Obviously individual people can be insane — usually broadly defined as mental or emotional distress that interferes with functioning normally in society. But what would it mean for a whole community to be insane? Is that even possible?

Alison recently wrote a post on this over at Pagan+Politics, with some thoughts on the recent shooting in Tuscon. I’m not going to repeat everything she said there, but to summarize, some recent thinking suggests that aggregates of people can indeed collectively suffer from mental illness. In such a situation, the sane person is one who experiences mental or emotional distress.

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At Death’s Door: Thoughts on Immortality and Spirituality

A few months ago there was another breakthrough in geriatrics. This time, scientists were actually able to reverse aging in mice.

draftimgTruthThe very thought of reversing aging has been considered insane for most of the history of science. Getting old happens — to animals, plants, buildings, planets, and stars. Bodies, like everything else, just wears out, and there isn’t much you could do about it. Sure, you could slow aging, you could keep healthy and avoid microbes and so on, and maybe double your lifespan. But reversing aging? Living forever? That’s crazy talk.

There’s no chance for us
Its all decided for us
This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us

Who wants to live forever
Who wants to live forever? …
Who dares to love forever?
When love must die…
–Queen

Humans have been ambivalent about immortality for a long, long, time. You can see it in our myths. People who want to live forever are almost always portrayed as shallow fools who end up living forever old, or mourning the deaths of their friends, or committing suicide, or similarly unhappy. The moral: quality of life is more important than quantity.

But by the time my grandchildren are born, I might be able to go to the doctor and get started on a simple drug regimen that would make me biologically younger than I am right now. I might have a lot of quality and quantity of life.

Imagine you were given that choice. Would you? Should you? It’s worth thinking about, because regardless of your own choice, some people certainly will.

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A Conversation with iGod

Today Ali pointed me to an interesting site which allows you to “chat” with “God”, by which I mean, interact conversationally with a computer program impersonating the supreme deity. I am not certain who is behind this sacrilege / work of art / holy relic, or how exactly it was programmed or trained; I tried to find out, but iGod’s web site (http://www.titane.ca/igod/main.html) was unhelpful. It appears to be the product of a Canadian software firm. However — perhaps unsurprisingly — there is another iGod you can chat with here; and this iGod is affiliated with a most informative web site about the state of the art in chatbots today, along with links to chatbots trained to talk like Kirk and Spock. Good times!

godswhisperSo I spoke to God a bit this afternoon.  Sometimes iGod’s responses are embarrassingly clunky and too-obviously generated by a machine; and sometimes they’re genuinely thought-provoking; and sometimes they’re just plain odd.  I’ve reproduced our dialogue below. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to talk with him about polytheism, but His words definitely gave me a lot to think about.

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Defining Paganism IV: Is Paganism a Religion?

In the last few posts, I proposed a definition of pagan based on the notion of prototypes. In this definition, pagan does not refer to a precise, countable set of people in the world. Instead, pagan refers to a set of overlapping and related prototypes — witch, druid, indigene, shaman, earth-centered, local, and probably some others. Instead of saying definitively whether someone is or is not pagan, we can (more usefully) point out ways in which they do or do not fit, or aspire to fit, one or more of these prototypes.

With this definition in hand, we can now turn to an extremely thorny question: is paganism a religion?

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Defining Paganism III: Prototypes of the Pagan

In the last post I laid some linguistic groundwork by talking about what word meaning was, and what it wasn’t. In brief, a word is not a clearly defined area of conceptual space, but a set of prototypes: classic, perfect, typical examples of the class. For example, the prototypical house is a a single-family home, free-standing, with one or two stories and maybe a garage and some windows and a lawn. Not all houses are like this, of course, but if something is a lot like this, it’s easy to identify it as a house. Words can have more than one prototype associated with them (such as game), though usually the prototypes of a given word are related and overlapping.

Now we can return and ask: what are the prototypes that make up the meaning of the word pagan?

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Defining Paganism II: Foundations of Word Meaning

In the last post I posed the problem: what is the meaning of the word pagan today? It’s an issue much more difficult than deciding on the meaning of, say, cabbage, both because of the complex history of the world and because of the high stakes. Deciding who is a pagan, and who is not, has serious consequences for the cohesion of the pagan community, its self-image, how others perceive it, and the rights of its members.

So what is the real definition of pagan?

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Defining Paganism I: Word Wrangling

During the Festival of Lights that Ali and I attended this February, one of the big issues discussed during many of the presentations and workshops was the very definition of paganism. Pretty much everyone there, if you asked them, would agree that they were pagan, and not a cabbage or something. But it turns out it that if it had been a Festival of Cabbages, things might have been simpler.

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Six Arguments Against Religion VI: The Illusion of Truth

This is the final post in the series of six arguments against religion, and it is subtle and very counterintuitive to most people. I’m going to use a couple of analogies to introduce it, which I hope will help me explain it.

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Six Arguments Against Religion V: Regulating Virtue and Selling Salvation

When people lose their sense of awe, they turn to organized religion. When they no longer trust themselves, they turn to authority. — Tao Te Ching 72 (Stephen Mitchell’s modern Zen-influenced translation)

God’s Cops

abyssLike any laws, the rules of religion tell you how to behave, and specify punishment for lawbreakers.

Sir, we caught you red-handedly not loving your neighbor as yourself. Uh-oh! You’re headed downtown, buddy. The sentence: eternal damnation. No bail.

But regulating virtue is nonsense. If I tell you to be virtuous — not just act virtuously, but be virtuous — and threaten you with punishment if you fail, and then you act virtuously, have you magically become virtuous? Even Jesus said that adultery committed in the heart is still adultery. The whole point of virtue is that it’s something you choose to be, of your own free will. Otherwise you’re play-acting. And omniscient Gods can tell the difference.

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