Dogma Bites Man: the Role of Reason in Religion

The doctrine is like a finger pointing at the moon, and one must take care not to mistake the finger for the moon. — Buddhist saying

“In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” — John 1:1-5

And in Greek

The language of the Bible is remarkably direct and accessible. John is talking about great ineffable mysteries — things perhaps beyond the comprehension of the human mind — and yet he speaks simply, plainly, as one might to a child. Actually, even more plainly than that: the language of the Bible, even in the New Testament’s original Greek, is extraordinarily simple and unadorned, compared to the standards of the language as a whole.

To take one very evident example: the Bible uses “and” a lot. English (and Greek) have any number of conjunctions that might serve: “because”, “since”, “while”, “however”, etc. In general usage, writers and speakers tend to vary the conjunctions they use, thus avoiding heavy-handed repetition and a simplistic style — but also to link their ideas and lead the reader from thought to thought, showing how things fit together. The Bible doesn’t generally do this.

The effect of this is that most Biblical passages present a series of assertions without saying how they fit together. They don’t make an argument; they don’t build up a complex idea; they simply list facts. This makes things easy, in a sense, because the reader doesn’t have to follow an argument, or compare statements, or hold multiple ideas in their head at once. Furthermore, if the reader wants to build an argument, or construct a complex idea, the text allows them to do so; it permits, in fact, many possible interpretations. It may be, for example, that in the beginning was the Word because the Word was with God, since the Word was God; or perhaps in the beginning was the Word for the Word was with God, but the Word was God; or in the beginning was the Word despite the Word being with God, yet the Word was God; etc.

And in Hebrew, And in English

Did the Biblical authors intend their text to be so simplistic, easy to read, and ambiguous? Probably not. This odd use of ‘and’ actually appears in the Old Testament as well, but there, it’s a lot less out of place: as it happens, ancient Hebrew had very few conjunctions in the language. A writer of Hebrew didn’t have much choice other than to use waw, which may be translated as “because”, “since”, “while”, “for”, “yet”, etc. …but is usually simply given as “and”.

And when Jesus spoke (in Aramaic, a close relative of Hebrew), he faced the same situation. Thus when the Greek New Testament was produced, the authors were (a) working with Jesus’s words, (b) trying to join their work to the established Hebraic Old Testament, (c) may have been translating into Greek from Aramaic original texts, and (d) were probably Aramaic speakers themselves — and all these sources included lots of waw’s; meaning that they frequently used the Greek word for “and” (kai) instead of availing themselves of Greek’s full set of conjunctions.

And since the Greek New Testament was interpreted as God’s word, God’s word was kai — strictly translated as et in the Latin Vulgate, und in Luther’s German translation, and and in the King James.

The upshot of Hebrew’s conjunctive paucity and its literal translations was that the holy canon of Christianity was simplistic, easy to read, and ambiguous. The New Testament was a single (relatively) short text, but it still admitted of many possible interpretations. For a while the churches tightly controlled those interpretations, partly by forbidding the Bible to be translated out of Latin and Greek; but once translations became available, and people began to see many possible ways of reading the text, sects multiplied endlessly.

Interestingly, the Christian Bible also admits of no interpretation. That is to say, if someone wants to simply read the list of conjoined assertions without trying to see how they fit together, and just take them as they are, on faith, they can. For many, in fact, reasoned argument is seen as antithetical to religion; rational argumentation is a slippery thing that can easily lead one astray from the unadorned Word of God, or from the immediacy and certainty of direct experience with the divine.

And in Reason, And in Religion

The role of reason in religion is one of those ambiguities that Christians have been arguing and thinking about since the beginning. Augustine believed that reason was fine, as long as it didn’t contradict things known through revelation. Aquinas, on the other hand, believed that if one could simply reason long and hard enough, one would find no contradiction between revelation and reason; and he is famous for his attempts to rationally prove the existence of God.

Meanwhile, other Christians argued that reason was, at best, a distraction, and at worst, a temptation to evil. Tertullian said “I believe because it is absurd”; Luther distrusted reason to do anything more than shed light on our own ignorance; Locke believed that faith was “above reason” and it ruled matters where reason could not go; and Kierkegaard felt that faith required a submission of the intellect, hostile to it and forever beyond it.

These attitudes contrast starkly with the intensely rational stances held by the Stoic pagans of Greece and Rome, as well as (for example) the Buddhists. The Stoics believed strongly in natural law and reason, and its sway over the world and humanity. And Buddhism’s core tenets read like a logical argument: There is suffering in the world; suffering arises from attachment; therefore, to remove suffering, remove attachment.

Today the situation is no closer to resolution: the war between faith and reason is recast as religion versus science, and the battles are fought in the churchyards and schoolrooms. Some people see reason and science as the amoral midwives of the modern world, with its inhuman technology and unspeakable horrors of war, and reject them unconditionally; while others point to all the wars caused by conflicts over faith and religion, and see reason and science as our only hope for species survival.

And in Druidism

Pagans in general hold a diversity of views about reason and science. Most of them hold the Earth to be tremendously holy, and it is hard to see technology’s rape of the planet without holding a grudge toward the science and reasoning driving it. Nevertheless, most pagans I know are comfortable with science and its tenets and are happy to believe in evolution, Odin, general relativity, and the Horned God, all at once.

The ancient druids were the lorekeepers of Celtic society, praised by the Greeks for their knowledge of history, culture, astronomy, and the like; and the druids of the revival period (the 17-1800s) carried on this tradition — most were experts in language, anthropology, religious studies, and history, as well as more esoteric arts.

Different modern druids will give you different perspectives on rationality, though I think most would agree that it is essential to the balanced spirit. After all, reason is as much a part of being human as sleeping, breathing, and eating; it is a unique gift not lightly to be cast aside. But I think most of them would also agree that reason alone will not get you all the way to the top of the mountain.

For myself, I am heavily influenced by Zen philosophy, which makes use of reason, but not in the usual way.

And in Zen

Zen teaches that the highest levels of enlightenment cannot be apprehended by reason; it is beyond the capacity for rational thought. But that doesn’t mean rational thought should be abandoned. On the contrary, the logical mind is an essential tool in the search for ultimate meaning.

The Zen Master presents the pupil with a koan: a logical puzzle. Among the most famous are “What is the sound of one hand, clapping?”, or “What was your face before you were born?”, but I prefer the simpler and less-known “Who are you?” If the student answers a name, like “John Smith”, the Master then asks, “Who is John Smith?” If the student says something like, “It’s me, this person standing before you,” the Master asks, “But who is it standing before me?” The student is tasked to sit in meditation and ponder the question — who am I, when all attributes and predicates are stripped away? The logical mind loops and jumps, twists and tangles…

But koans do not have answers. Their purpose is to puzzle, to force the student to exercise the mind, to reach new insights about identity and reality. Eventually the logic, relentlessly applied, begins to break the false attachments and illusions of the world, and the student starts to ascend to the higher levels of enlightenment. And at last, logic will fail, and enlightenment will be attained.

But let me be clear: koans are not the only tools available; this can be done with any ambiguous or unclear proposition — a Tarot card, a song lyric, a chance word heard on the subway. A verse from the Bible.

Dogma and Lemma

The irony, then, is that the road to enlightenment can indeed be, and has been, walked by people contemplating the Bible’s oddly phrased, simplistic, and disjointed attestations, precisely because they are odd, simplistic, and disjointed. The less sense a Bible verse makes, the more like a koan it is, and the more wisdom can be wrung from it by the dedicated student. The most profound mystic truths have been inferred from seeming-nonsense such as “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” Even the maddest Zen Masters never exhorted their followers to eat them (to my knowledge — I wouldn’t put it past them). But this is the foundation of some of the deepest Christian mysteries — and its meaning is a source of ferocious contention between various Christian sects.

This, then, is the last piece of advice Zen offers regarding reason: don’t elevate lemma to dogma. Feel free to use whatever koans or Bible verses you like, and reason about them freely, but the final truth is beyond reason. Reason is a boat that can take you to the shore of enlightenment, but you have to step onto the shore yourself. Do not mistake your reasoned conclusions for eternal truths. To do so would be to mistake the finger for the moon.

Meditation: Animist Consecration

Last night my awesome wife Ali and I joined in a set of consecration ceremonies at our Unitarian Universalist church. Along with the Reverend’s UU blessing and our friend Chris’s Wiccan consecration, we demonstrated a Druid / Animist method of connecting with an object.

I say “connecting with” an object instead of “consecrating” because in our tradition, all things are sacred. We cannot imbue an object with holiness. It is already holy. What we can do is recognize the sacredness of the object, and enter into relationship with it (or deepen our existing relationship). We do this by sitting with the object, touching it, and listening for its voice in the Song of the World.

I wrote a meditation to guide this process, and it seemed to go well, so here it is in full:

Animist Consecration Meditation

Sit and relax. Take a deep breath… and release. As you breathe out, let all your tension melt away. Relax your shoulders, relax your neck, relax your eyes. Take another deep breath… and release. Imagine that a wave of warm golden light is slowly rising in your body, starting in your feet, rising up through your legs, up into your torso. The warm golden light fills your body, down your arms and into your fingers, up to the top of your head… Let your body sink, growing heavier. Your arms and legs have become heavy and settle comfortably.

Now turn your attention gently to the object in your hands. Feel its weight there. Imagine that, like your body, it is becoming heavier. Feeling its weight and heft pressing in your hands helps you relax further. … Feel its texture. Is it hard? Soft? Smooth? How does it respond when you apply gentle pressure? … Feel the temperature of the object in your hands. Perhaps it has responded to the warmth of your body, becoming warmer as you’ve been holding it.

Think about history of the object. Where did it come from? How did it come into this room? How did it come into your possession? Do you know who else has held this object, if anyone else ever has? Was it crafted by a person, or by a machine, or is it completely natural? How long ago was it made? Where did the materials of the object come from? From an animal? A plant? If so, what do you know about those living beings, and the lives they led? Did they live nearby, experiencing the same summers and winters and rains as ourselves? Or did they live far away, in a distant land, under different stars? Has it been under the sea? Did it come from the earth, crafted from stone or crystal, formed millions of years ago?

Imagine what it must have been like to experience the history of this object — from the time of its making down to the present day. Think about what it must be like to be the object, now, today, surrounded by us in this warm and sacred space, being held and warmed by your hands.

Feel the warmth of the object again. The object has responded to the heat in your hands. The heat in the object is nothing more nor less than vibration; its atoms and molecules have begun to vibrate along with the atoms and molecules of your hand. If your ears were sensitive enough, you would be able to hear the vibration of the object in the air. Hold it tightly and feel the warmth. If it were making an audible sound, what would it be? Would it be high-pitched, or low? Would it be a single constant tone, or a chord of notes? A monotone, or a tune? …

Hear that sound in your mind. Focus on it.

Now, in a moment, when you are ready and comfortable, respond to the song of the object, in whatever way feels right. Maybe you want to hum along with it, or provide a bass or counterpoint. Maybe what is called from you is a chant, or a whisper. Sit with your object, listen to it, and respond. Sing the song of the world with your object.

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Ruminations Under an Oak

On Wednesday we visited the Angel Oak near Charleston, South Carolina. It is a vast thing, probably over a thousand years old, twisted and hoary and huge, like a cross between a live oak and an elephant. From a short distance away, it looks like a whole grove of trees; under its boughs, it is a cathedral of gnarled, bearded wood, floored with waxen golden leaves.

Some random thoughts I had while sitting, meditating, and walking around and under the Oak:

Most trees are a tall trunk, from which spread the branches in a halo. The human body is much the same. Most animals follow a slightly different scheme: a horizontal trunk, supported by multiple limbs. Human architecture tends to follow the animal scheme, a horizontal roof supported by multiple pillars. But there are exceptions, such as the yurt, which is supported by a central pillar, and is extremely sturdy.

The Angel Oak has multiple support points, like an animal; but the overwhelming impression is more like an atom or an amoeba: its trunk is less like a central pillar, and more like a nucleus. Its branches and roots go up, down, sideways, in all directions.

This tree is a god. Literally. Touching its bark, you have same sense of something ancient, nigh-eternal, and very present, aware of you. Tolkien had it right when he described Treebeard’s eyes.

One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years. — Tolkien, The Two Towers

Time. The tree is old, old, but time is measured in changes. For something that changes little… time moves more slowly. The Oak moves slowly compared to humans, so a thousand human years is not a thousand oak years. Still, it loses and regains its leaves each year (in the spring); it is not changeless.

It is a living sculpture carved by gravity, light, air, time, and the forest around it. The branches curve and twist in unexpected ways, echoes of obstacles the tree once faced, now long-gone. For some reason, it hasn’t grown to the east. Maybe there was a building there, or another large tree, now vanished?

The tree has grown to become an axis mundi. An axis mundi, a world tree or central mountain, sits in a central location, and exerts its influence over the whole world; and the whole world is reflected within it. Just so: the Angel Oak influences the land all round it, physically and spiritually, so that the land echoes the oak; and the oak reflects the land all round it, too. Of course, this is true of all things; it is only our human manners of seeing and thinking that make some axes mundi clearer than others.

The Angel Oak and its surrounding forest are threatened by development. Get more information here.

Oddments

  • Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! Bury it, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and you get nothing but decay. -Shaw
  • And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. -Shakespeare

Moss, Mire

This week we’re in Charleston, South Carolina, visiting the Angel Oak. It’s considerably sunnier and wetter here than it is back in Pittsburgh: the earth is sandier, the blue skies paler, and the waters warmer. In the morning we went out jogging past the stately homes, the gardens lush with semitropical bushes, huge magnolias, and towering pines. In many places the yards showed the ongoing struggle of the suburbanite to grow grass everywhere, everywhere in America, even in places that would much rather be, say, a sandy beach, or a peat bog. As we ran, we ducked under the hanging Spanish moss, one of my favorite plants of the deep South.

Spanish moss is not moss at all, really, but a kind of bromeliad, related to the pineapple, and native only to the Americas. Like many bromeliads, it grows in the air, attached to other plants (or poles or telephone wires), and thrives in areas of high humidity. The island of Barbados (from Portuguese “bearded”) was named after the Spanish moss growing there.

The Proto Indo European root meu meant both “moist” and “marsh”; it is the ancestor of Latin mucus (eww) and Proto Germanic musan, meaning “marsh,” “bog,” “mire,” and a plant that often grows there: “moss.” Musan became meos in Old English and moss in modern English. Meanwhile, musan became myrr in Old Norse, which was borrowed into English as mire. These words both carry the spiritual notion if manifestation, creation, in recognition of the tremendous life-fostering power of those areas where land and water mix in equal parts. Moss also has earthiness and growth, increase; while mire has strong motion, power, movement, and suggests an almost malevolent agency of entrapment.

Oddments

  • We procrastinate all our lives. Perhaps we know deep down we are immortal, and that eventually all men will do and know all things. – Borges
  • When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with its fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze. -Carlyle

Rain, Wind

It’s been a cold, rainy spring here in southwestern Pennsylvania, and though there are lilies blooming in the garden and birds clamoring in the yard, I’m nevertheless wrapped under two blankets, the windows are shut tight and the rain and wind are beating at the glass.

3 AM – I am awake to the downpour, dark rains swelling the land, my bones themselves seeming waterlogged until they are spongy and wrinkled.

4:11 AM – The first bird opens his throat to swallow the dark in rising song slipping in between the rain. The land awakening, dawn remade. – Ali

Rain

Rain is probably from Proto Indo European reg, meaning “moist, wet”, related to Latin rigare (whence we get irrigate). In Proto Germanic reg became regna, and in Old English, regn, contracted to rain in Middle English. Spiritually the word indicates motion through initiation towards groundedness and release; it echoes the sentiments of many who feel that a shower is a baptism of the earth.

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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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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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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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