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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