Archive for February, 2015

Is There a Better Way to Discuss White Privilege?

I’ve previously discussed my problems with the term “privilege”. I think there are basic human rights that every person should have, regardless of gender/race/ethnicity/class et al. See: United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (discussion on the political status/significance of this document will be saved for another post) When one person is denied basic human rights and dignity, and another person is given those things without question due to a difference in what social category they belong to, then the second person is not so much “privileged” as being treated like a human being, whereas the first person is having their human rights denied- they are being oppressed.

Privilege on the other hand, is some type of social “bonus” you are given, on top of humane treatment. The usual connotation is that this privilege is conditional and can be taken away upon a person’s violation of laws or even non-legalized social norms of behavior. Many of us become familiar with the second case as children- when we are warned by parents or other authority that bad behavior will result in loss of the privilege to watch TV, go to recess, eat dessert and so forth. In a legal context, a driver’s license is a privilege that can be suspended if a driver violates traffic laws, does not pay tickets etc. Interestingly, while voting is generally seen as a right, it becomes a “privilege” once someone is convicted of a felony.

But in postmodern academic-activist social justice discourse- privilege is both basic humane treatment plus extra social bonuses that people get based on what social categories they belong to, due to the social, political and economic structures that are in place. But since, most of us are not sociologists, economists or historians we are going to have a pretty limited understanding of those structures. Imagine you are a white, heterosexual man with a high school education living in a small town in Iowa that is almost entirely white (though you think of them as German Lutherans and German Catholics)  consisting of mostly farmers, farmhands and shopkeepers. You think of yourself as nice, fair-minded person who treats everyone with respect, regardless of their gender or skin color. You are politically moderate, and vote in each election but aren’t very involved beyond that. You understand racism and sexism mostly as individual acts of discrimination and bigotry. But then you start hearing more and more about racism and sexism, as well as other isms that are less familiar, like ableism and homophobia. You thought many of those problems, were for the most part resolved in the past, and are upset to hear that they are arising again. Out of concern, you join an online anti-racism group, and quickly grow confused about what other people in the group are saying. They are using all these terms that are unfamiliar, like “micro-aggressions”, “gaslighting” and “intersectionality”. You try to look up what these words mean, but they only seem to lead to even more unfamiliar concepts. Meanwhile, some of your questions and comments that you thought were innocent and well-intended are met with accusations of “micro-aggressions” and “tone-policing”. Your attempts to explain yourself are met with people virtually yelling “Check your privilege!” You don’t think of yourself as that privileged, and that term brings to mind images of various Ivy League-credentialed Presidents and candidates. You’re definitely not like them! So you leave this group, shaking your head. You turn on the radio, and hear a voice complaining about “political correctness”, the assault on middle-class American family values, the farm economy and so forth. You start nodding.

*By the way, I am not specifically making fun of Iowa- I used to live there, and I got the “pig-farmer” jokes when I moved to Minnesota. I’ve also lived in Montana, Idaho and Kansas. This scenario is based on various failed conversations I’ve seen and participated in both in person and online between educated,  urban left-wing activists and people who are often less educated, from very white areas, and with more moderate or conservative political views. And Particularly in the Heathens United Against Racism group on Facebook. Good, well-meaning people, don’t get me wrong, but like I said there are huge communication problems and need to educate in *multiple directions*!

February 28, 2015 at 3:20 am 2 comments

Fanfiction as Midrash

The next topic in the Pagan Experience is Wisdom, Knowledge and Gnosis. I’m writing about “the Lore”, Holy Writ or Official Canon.
There’s an old post by Greta Christina, an atheist blogger called “Why Religion is Like Fanfic
I remember agreeing with a lot of what she had to say, but taking away a totally different message than what she intended. She was demonstrating how silly religion is, because religious people keep explaining away gaps and inconsistencies  with theological interpretations and midrashim- in Jewish tradition, a midrash is a story that “fills in the gaps” in stories in the Torah, and Christians do similar things. This looks completely ridiculous to someone outside of the religious tradition, just as a non-fan might look at Star Trek fan fiction writers doing somersaults to explain discrepancies in TV show plotlines. Unlike some religious people might be, I wasn’t insulted by the comparison. (To be fair, my religion wasn’t involved!) Though it might seem petty to others, I know that for myself and many other fans, Star Trek and many other fictional narratives are in fact deeply meaningful, in fact some of us find more relevance in matters of ethics and philosophy in our “silly stories” than in religious texts like the Bible which according to other people are “serious stories”. More about “fandom as surrogate religion- or sometimes actual religion” in another post!

Like many atheists, Greta Christina is going off of the “if this religion isn’t completely literally true, then why bother with religion at all?” mentality. Polytheists and Pagans are people who find value in myth and story, and we don’t typically view our myths literally. What matters isn’t that the story literally happened, but what the story is telling us. The question is not “Is this story true?” but rather “Does this story work?” That is what any good storyteller or writer asks themselves, or their listeners and readers, for that matter. If someone wants to base their worldview completely off what can be scientifically proven, that is fine. I am not interested in trying to win converts here. And I indeed find much value in scientific discovery and am very glad human beings have developed the scientific method.

As I’ve said before, particularly in the Celtic and Norse traditions, we aren’t always sure if some of our Gods are literary creations or actually historically worshipped beings, or even original historical people who were at some point deified. These stories are medieval literature, written down by monks and other Christians rather than as intended religious texts. We should be careful about viewing them as such. Heck even with things that were written down in pre-Christian times like the Iliad and the Odyssey, were they really intended as religious texts that gave people an idea of what the Gods are like and how they interact with mortals, or mostly as entertainment? It’s really hard to separate the two, because most art produced back then had at least some type of spiritual significance- anything from painted pottery to plays.

I am completely fine with admitting that my various components of my religion are human creations from parts created by medieval monks, bards that predated Christianity, the bards of the Celtic Twilight, to theologians and ritualists of the modern revival like Isaac Bonewits, to ideas of my own creation. Yes, that’s right, I just admitted my religion is “made-up”. That isn’t the same as saying that it isn’t real. Most human beings, religious and non-religious alike find value in the arts- music, dance, painting, sculpture, theater. We might even consider sports and games as another type of art. There are various theories about the evolutionary social functions of the arts, but people are not generally thinking about that when they suggest going to a concert. We can all go to the same concert and have different experiences, some may enjoy it, some may not, and we’ll all have different reasons for why that is. But there is no scientific way of measuring what music is good or bad. I see my religion as an art form, and furthermore a sort of language that I share with others. I can’t get everyone to do art the same way, or appreciate the same type of art, and I can’t get everyone in the world to speak the same language. Why would I want to? Diversity is far more interesting. The problem comes when some people *do* want to make rules about what type of music you’re allowed to play or compose- this is no joke, these sorts of laws have been made in various authoritarian regimes. Languages *do* limit what concepts you can express and how you can express them, just as religions can. This is why I enjoy being multilingual.

See also: http://daoineile/2015/02/06/friday-c-is-for-canon

February 27, 2015 at 1:45 am 4 comments

Saint Dymphna

As March rolls around, which means St. Patrick’s Day, my thoughts turn to my Irish Catholic ancestors and their faith, particular the many saints that hail from the Emerald Isle. One lesser known lady is Saint Dymphna- purportedly the daughter of an Irish pagan chieftain who converted and devoted herself to Christ. She is the patron saint of epilepsy, mental illnesses and victims of abuse and incest and runaways. Apparently, her father was horribly distraught after her mother’s death, and looked all throughout Ireland for a woman that resembled her to re-marry. After much searching, his messengers gave up, but pointed out Dymphna, and the king, mad with grief declared that he would marry his own daughter. She fled to Antwerp, Belgium along with the court jester and the priest Gerebran. She was followed by her father and his men, and beheaded. Her body was buried at the church in Gheel and many people came from far and wide to seek healing for their troubled minds and souls. Apparently this town was very advanced for its time in treating mentally ill people humanely, which was rare in the Middle Ages. I need to do more research, but I have gotten the impression that this humane treatment of disabled and mentally ill people was more common in the Early Middle Ages, but then declined as madness and other disabilities became more associated with being sinful or possessed by the Devil.
I also thought the mention of the court jester fleeing with her was interesting, as the role of jester was often played by people with disabilities- hunchbacks, dwarves, and people who now would be considered developmentally disabled- “natural fools”, they were called.

I started adding images of her to my Pinterest shrine to Neurodiverse & Disabled Ancestors. I am not sure if she should be part of it since she herself wasn’t neurodivergent. But by extension this category could include anyone who is especially known for helping or advocating for disabled people. I suppose as the board grows, she may get her own shrine.

So to be honest, there isn’t really clear evidence that Dymphna actually existed as a historical person. Her story is suspiciously similar to various fairy tales about a daughter whose father wants to marry her- the most well-known being Donkeyskin. In many variants, there is some type of garment that belong to the dead mother and the father declares that he will marry the woman who fits into it, and the daughter unwittingly tries on the garment. However apparently, because there has been so many reports of healing miracles, the Catholic Church is like “Eh, hey if it works…I guess that’s cool.” Besides declaring that a saint is not historically legit doesn’t exactly stop people from venerating them. St. Christopher, anyone? Heck, Santa Muerte?!

Symbols of St. Dymphna
Lily- for purity and chastity- it could also be further associated with purifying the mind of disturbing thoughts
Sword- weapon of her martyrdom
Shamrock- since she’s Irish
Doe, Fawn- her name in Gaelic is Damhnait- meaning little deer (dahv-nit)
Symbols for specific neurological/mental conditions, recovery/support for abuse victims/survivors

Caelesti’s Devotional Ideas-
Naomh Damhnait would be her name in Irish (Naomh= Saint, related to the word for holy/sacred)
Write prayers for her, write healing prayer that includes both her and St/Goddess Brighid
Read Deerskin, Robin McKinley’s feminist adaptation of the Donkeyskin tale type
Work on your own recovery, engage in self-care, stop and smell the lilies
Donate/volunteer/advocate for individuals with mental illness, victims/survivors of abuse, rape and incest
Support feministy/social justice-y women religious (nuns) and Catholic women in general who are working on reform.

Oh teh noes- is this Cultural Appropriation?!!! Just in case anyone asks…
Well, considering that term is generally used for historically or presently oppressed and colonized cultures- Ireland would fit that, but at the same time, Saint Dymphna is part of the Roman Catholic Church *in general* which has had pretty serious issues with colonizing and oppressing cultures from around the world. We could even say women, and sexual/gender minorities are groups that have globally suffered colonialism from various sources, not just religious. Personally, I feel some solidarity with social justice and feminist focused Catholics, and drawing on these traditions a little is a way for me to reclaim and connect with Irish history and culture, instead of just ignoring centuries of Catholic Ireland and digging back into the pagan past while modern Irish people look at me like I’m some crazy American. Anyhow, there are particular saints that have a lot of cultural context attached to them- as in Afro-Caribbean and Latin American syncretic traditions and if you are honoring saints syncretized with Orisha and such, I’d advise doing it within the social protocol and rules that are internal to those traditions. These are things you’ll need to find out from actual human beings rather than Llewellyn books and Tumblr. Anyway, those are definitely outside of my cultural bailiwick, so I am stepping off the soapbox.

Saint Dymphna: Out of the Shadows of Mental Illness

I am having trouble posting links again- but just Google her- you’ll find tons of prayers, amulets, prayer cards etc.

February 26, 2015 at 2:07 am 4 comments

Being Human

Feeling like a human being, and connecting with other humans can be a struggle for me as an autistic person. So often, qualities that are defined as essential and “natural” to humans don’t come as naturally to me, or as I’ve come to realize, simply *work differently*. Over time, the definition of human has broadened- in Western Enlightenment tradition, only white land-owning Christian men were accorded full human rights. Hundreds of years later, we are still working on the whole “all are created equal” thing. In Unitarian Universalism we acknowledge this in the First Principle- “We affirm and recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person”. This is in contrast to the Christian belief in Original Sin- which was actually not a part of early Christianity, we have stodgy ol’ St. Augustine of Hippo to blame for that one. We believe in Original Blessing, that every child is born a redeemer. 

I do not interpret the First Principle as meaning that humans are perfect. At some point we are all going to mess up in both minor and major ways, and we need to find forgiveness, atonement and redemption. I believe these concepts are often missing in Pagan religions, with their emphasis on cosmic justice and harsh honor codes, but I think they can be found if we look more deeply. They may express themselves differently in Paganisms but they are still present. Paradoxically, in different types of Christianity forgiveness and redemption can be at times too easy and too difficult. I’ll go into this more in another post (and after more research!) but suffice to say that in most Pagan religions, personal responsibility needs to be taken for wrongdoing. It is not easily forgiven by a god who will take away your sins. There is usually some type of ritual purification, both spiritual and physical that takes place, and atonement made to the community and to the spirit world with material offerings.

In the esoteric philosophy of Thelema, “Every man and woman is a Star”. Each person, then must find their True Will (Thelema means “will” in Greek) their higher purpose, which cannot conflict with that of any other person. Freemasonry also focuses on human self-improvement.
It is not surprising to me to find similar ideas in these other philosophies, because they also are very influenced by the humanism of the Enlightenment. For anyone who has interest in both UUism and magic, those are two paths I would suggest checking out, and both are very theologically open.

February 26, 2015 at 1:21 am Leave a comment

Fehu- It’s the Cows!

The first rune of the first Aett is Fehu, meaning cow.

Ancient-
In Norse mythology, a great cow called Audhumla began licking the salt in the great chasm of Ginunagap. Eventually she uncovered Ymir, the first frost giant and nursed him with her milk.
In Neolithic Europe, cattle were considered a basic form of wealth. Be careful, because oftentimes people interpret Fehu with wishful thinking, “Ooh, free money!” But owning a cow also means having the responsibility of milking it several times a day. Not owning a cow meant you were poor, but it also meant being free of this responsibility, so you could go on journeys. A wandering skald (bard) or craftsperson would likely not own cattle for this reason.

In a northern climate with little sunlight, milk is a way to get vitamin D. Likewise, people who moved north evolved to have lighter skin, so they could absorb more vitamin D from the sun. Oddly enough, the term “lactose intolerance” is actually a rather Eurocentric one, as people who can process milk after infancy are actually a global minority- mostly people of European, Middle Eastern descent, as well as some people in India. I remember when my cousin was studying abroad in Denmark while trying to follow a vegan diet. He found it impossible- eggs and dairy products were in everything! He had to compromise and switch to a vegetarian diet instead.

Modern-

Most of us of course do not own cattle, but have wealth in more easily movable forms. We can think about managing our finances as herding our cattle, and even keep spare change in a cow-shaped bank! You can draw a Fehu rune on your checkbook, or other financial files (just not the documents themselves) We still have some words and phrases in our language that reflect the cow = money association. The word chattel (like chattel slavery) is another form of cattle. A cash cow is an important money-maker for a person, company or country. When the stock market is doing well, we call it a bull market.

Personal-

I know for myself, sorting out my feelings surrounding money and careers has been difficult. I tend to have a lot of resistance towards the hyper-individualism and cruel competition of American capitalism, and this has led me to feel depressed, discouraged and alienated from society. I’ve internalized a sort of bohemian disdain for working for “The Man” and whatever jobs I consider “beneath” my intelligence and values, but all those attitudes hold me back from success. I need to compromise and find work, even if it’s not my idea of “the right job” for a while. It’s OK to be a milkmaid, I need to eat after all, and maybe some day after some hard work, I will be able to sell the cow and do something more adventurous.

Cattle as wealth in Neolithic Europe- Where’s the Beef? Nerissa Russell

February 24, 2015 at 8:49 am 5 comments

Is Nature-Based Paganism More “Mainstream”?

A suggestion I’ve seen here and there in discussions of Pagan theology, and how Pagans present ourselves to the general public, including interfaith work, is that promoting a style of Paganism as nature or earth-based- as opposed to a focus on Gods/spirits or a particular culture- is a way to make Paganism seem more “mainstream”, whatever that means.

First-off, I think if you are talking about Paganism to the public, it’s better to give a description of your own path or tradition rather than trying define the ever-moving Pagan umbrella/tent. Lately I have taken to calling myself a polytheist, and going to more detail from there, as a way of bypassing the Pagan = default assumption of Wicca issue. Nothing against Wicca, I’d just rather have Wiccans explain it themselves. I’ve also given up on distinguishing Wicca from Paganisms and Witchcraft traditions that waddle and quack like Wicca but loudly squawk that they are not.

Anyhow I’ve seen this implication arise somewhere amidst the debates between polytheist and non-theistic pagans and polytheists and Wiccan/Witches/closely allied Pagans. I don’t feel as if I have skin in the game of either of said debates but I am wondering about it, because “earth/nature-based” is a description frequently used by CUUPS- the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans, and for that matter earth-based is often instead of Pagan in UU settings. I’d like to hear some feedback from folks of varying viewpoints on this, I just ask that y’all play nicely together.

I don’t see Earth-based as necessarily more mainstream. There’s a big spectrum between Sierra Club member and eco-anarchist, or someone who drives a Prius, shops at Whole Foods and someone who consistently uses rags for toilet paper and has a completely wilderness based lifestyle. I see a term like Earth/nature-based spirituality as being overlapping with, but also broader than Paganism. Some forms of Paganism aren’t very nature-y. Some indigenous/traditional religions might identify with being Earth/nature-based but not the pagan label. Individual spiritual but not religious  folks (SBNR) might call themselves earth-based but not Pagan- I suspect those folks are more apt to contemplate nature, do outdoors activities  but not so much engage in formal ritual. Several of my relatives fall into this sort of category- my uncle uses the term “Blue Domer”- the blue dome- the sky is my cathedral, he says. Theologically they might be pantheists, panentheists, deists, agnostics, atheists, or animists. There are even Earth-based Jews, Christians and Buddhists. This is all totally cool and awesome, it’s great to see people connecting with nature, physically, spiritually and mentally. It’s great to see environmentalism taken more seriously. But the commonalities I find with hikers, bikers, campers, recyclers and such across the board are different than the commonalities I find with broader Pagandom, or with UUs for that matter. It’s hard to explain I guess. Basically, when I use a term that attracts all kinds of people who enjoy nature, I will encounter some cool people, but not necessarily the freaky geeky radical queer tribe that I feel at home with! For reasons of practicality, sanity, wanting to be in touch with reality, and to be honest decent shots at career networking, I don’t limit my interactions to just Pagani. But in spite of their dysfunctional, disorganized goofiness, it is often with Pagans that I feel the most at home. Earth-based is one of our labels, yes, but it’s part of a bigger tag cloud- (since I’m talking about earth, it makes me think “dust cloud”!)

Possibly relevant discussions:
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/naturespath/2015/02/tree-huggers-loosen-your-grip/
http://www.patheos.com//Pagan/Bringing-Back-Gods-Sufenas-Virius-Lupus-01-11-2013.html

February 21, 2015 at 3:07 am 6 comments

Colorblindness

The default attitude towards race that most white Americans tend to have is colorblindness. We are often taught by our parents and various mainstream institutions- from schools to corporate diversity training that it is polite to disregard other people’s skin colors and treat everyone the same. This is all very well meaning and reflective of American values like equal treatment under the law, being rewarded for hard work and merit rather than birth status. When the subject of race arises, many white folks will respond that of course racial discrimination is wrong, and that they “don’t see color” and a person’s race makes no difference.

I’ve noticed that when I bring up the topic of race, people accuse me of being racist simply for talking about it. Bringing attention to difference will cause people to make a bigger deal out of these differences, and people will then be influenced to judge others on the basis of skin color. By discussing white privilege or white supremacy, I am making unfair and racist generalizations about white people. They want to be judged as individuals, not as members of a race! All of these same accusations are made at people of color who try to talk about these issues, and often much more harshly than when I receive them!

I am not faulting other white folks for thinking this way, and it certainly does not mean they lack intelligence or are bad, racist people for thinking these things. But the insistence on colorblindness means we cannot have these conversations. People do get treated differently based on their appearance and cultural background. When instances of racial discrimination or mistreatment are brought up, often people with a colorblind mentality will dismiss these experiences and try to explain them away. Since they do not personally experience racism, they have trouble believing these things happen. It is also troubling because it threatens their belief that American society, while flawed is still pretty fair and egalitarian in how it treats people.

Unsurprisingly, when confronted with disbelief, dismissal or challenges from white people when they describe being followed in stores by clerks, or pulled over by cops for no apparent reason- Black people get pretty sick of these responses and do not share them with their white co-workers, neighbors, friends and even relatives.  Also, unless you are actually blind, you are going to noticed differences in people, and you may treat them differently without realizing it. There’s no sense in getting worried about if deep down, you are actually racist, and a terrible awful person. Every human being has at least a little bit of some type of prejudice in them. That doesn’t mean acting on the prejudice is OK, but it means we all need to work on becoming aware of that prejudice and unlearning it. It’s kind of like how, I don’t smoke, but I do breath in polluted air every day. You may not be going to Klan rallies on the weekend, and you may have been raised by super-tolerant pro-multicultural hippie parents, but you still live in a society that influences how you see other people.

So if colorblindness isn’t the answer, what is? We can be aware of visible ethnic, racial and cultural differences without totally defining a person by them. We can also working on becoming more aware of differences that are less visible. It’s tricky because in any given social situation, a person’s ethnic/cultural background may or may not be relevant. It’s a lifelong process, but the good news is it gets easier as you have the chance to interact with more people of varied backgrounds. We don’t all have the same opportunities to do that. Some of us live in areas which are very culturally homogenous, and we may not have chances to travel, or even if we do, we may not have the chance to really get to know people who are different because we are busy visiting relatives and such. (I’m thinking for example, of my trip to New Orleans for my cousin’s posh wedding. Yep- pretty much all white people. I didn’t really get the chance to experience the local culture in depth outside of the wedding, but I did get a taste!)

February 20, 2015 at 7:41 am 2 comments

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