A middle way

Middle Path (image from Creative Commons)

Middle Path (image from Creative Commons)

There was some discussion generated by my last post, Choosing not to choose, after John Halstead kindly shared it on Facebook. John Beckett, one of my favourite Druid bloggers, posted the following comment:

This is not choosing not to choose. This is choosing a particular compromise that rejects some elements of the supernatural but accepts others. And that’s fine. But it’s not choosing not to choose.

Perhaps rather than “choosing not to choose” another way of phrasing it would be finding a “middle way” between the certainties of religious literalism, and the equal certainty and religious illiteracy of some forms of hard atheism. Druidry, based as it is in practice not belief, can provide a third way, a way that allows for acceptance of science and evidence but yet expresses a deep sense of the Sacred in, through, and as Nature (whether you name and personify Nature as various gods or not).

John Michael Greer (this is the third John mentioned in one post…this is getting confusing), in his Druidry Handbook, writes that the founders of the Druid Revival in the 18th and 19th centuries lived at a time when society was torn between religious fervour and the new materialistic sciences. Greer writes:

The forced choice between murderously dogmatic religion and spiritually barren materialism drove many people to look for a third option.

For some then and now, Druidry was that third option: a spirituality, a philosophy, a way of life (and for some a religion) that neither demanded assent to an irrational creed, nor sacrificed the Sacred on the altar of Descartes’ “mechanical philosophy”. Druidry saw the Sacred in the natural, and rejected the “forced choice” as a false one.

In that sense, taking the third way can be seen as making a conscious choice not to choose “one side” or “the other” in the endless and futile religion/atheism debates. Or, as Facebook commenter Liz Morgan suggests, it might be more accurate to say that it is “rejecting the dichotomy as false”.

I would also like to quickly take issue at John (Beckett)’s use of the word “supernatural” in this context. While for some (most?) theists, the gods are by definition “supernatural”, above Nature, in my own naturalistic Paganism, they are very much natural. Indeed, I see them as Nature personified:

For me, Taranis (or Thor, when I’m feeling Norse), for example, is not just a “god of thunder”, but is the thunder itself, in all its fierce majesty. Brigid is the hearth-fire, Sulis is the sacred well, the Earth-Mother is the Earth in which we live and move and have our being. The gods are the land, sea and sky and are not apart from, much less “above” Nature. If Nature is all, then nothing that exists can be apart from it.

As a naturalist, I don’t reject some elements of the supernatural and accept others: I reject the whole concept of “supernatural” as meaningless! But that doesn’t have to mean rejecting the Sacred, or the names and myths of the ancient gods.

This naturalistic way of viewing the Divine is not theism. Not in the traditional sense at least. But it isn’t atheism either. Not really. Perhaps it is “choosing not to choose” or “rejecting the dichotomy”. Perhaps it is a way of thinking that reconciles a binary into a ternary, a Druidic triad of sorts.

Or perhaps it’s just muddled thinking, and a way of having my cake and eating it too…

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Choosing not to choose

Choices: Image from Geograph (CC2.0)

Choices: Image from Geograph (CC2.0)

I’m currently reading my way through Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-theistic Pagans. It’s taking me longer than I expected to read, but not because it’s dull, far from it! The reason it’s a slow read for me is that every chapter or so, I have to stop and think, make notes, go for a walk, and process the depth of insight and experience in the various contributions to the collection.

One piece in particular has stood out for me so far, and it’s a piece I remember reading when it was published on Humanistic Paganism: Emotional Pantheism: Where the Logic Ends and the Feelings Start by Áine Órga. Go read the whole thing, then come back…I’ll wait!

I’ve been a reader of Áine’s writings on various blogs for a while now, and it’s been interesting to follow the progression of her thought and practice. Áine currently writes at Heart Story and also has a YouTube channel.

Áine opens by saying: “Logically I am an atheist. Emotionally I am a Pantheist”. While not believing in deity, she describes having strong emotional feelings of Pantheism, that the universe is sacred or divine.

For Áine, spirituality is built on emotion. This is something I have struggled with myself. With a background in academic study of religion, and rationalist atheism, opening myself up to an emotional connection to the Sacred (whatever it might be) has always been difficult. But Áine articulates how emotion does not have to be opposed to reason, but can work alongside it. She writes:

“My beliefs and therefore my practice are certainly naturalistic. I leave room for the unexplained, and engage in practices that might seem empty or pointless to some naturalists or atheists. But I don’t take many leaps of faith intellectually, everything is based in reason. In this way I am a naturalistic Pagan.

Where I do take those leaps of faith is in the emotional sphere. By engaging in this spiritual practice, I open myself up to experiencing things beyond the mundane. In many ways, it is in exercise in allowing myself to feel without judgement. My spirituality is my way of allowing my pantheism a space in my life.”

The thing that really struck me in this piece was the phrase:

“I have chosen not to choose between naturalism and theism”

For so many people, this choice, this dichotomy, is so important. What you believe, which side of the fence you stand on, which label you use, becomes an identity, a uniform, a tribe. It is limiting, and leads to endless debates and arguments over theology and belief. But why not be both? Why not experience the universe as multi-layered and manifold? As godless, yet divine?

The book that inspired the title of my blog is called Erring by Mark C. Taylor, who describes himself as a “postmodern a/theologian”. Mark’s “a/theology” is itself a bold statement of choosing not to choose between a religious (in Mark’s case post-Christian) experience and a logical non-literalism, or atheism.

So, in the spirit of this piece, I, too, choose not to choose. Like a tree, my beliefs remain rooted in science, evidence, and reason. But the branches of my Druidry…well, they are reaching for the Sacred. And if I connect to that by calling on ancient gods, or the spirits of this land, then so be it. What those names represent is less important than the power they hold. To “hard” Polytheists and equally hard capital-A Atheists alike, this may seem irrational, or paradoxical, but, as Áine writes:

“Paradoxes will always abound, and I’m learning that it’s important to embrace the difference facets of your personality, to incorporate it all into your life.

So when I perform ritual – when I light my altar candles and utter words of dedication and devotion – I am not merely marking a changing season or an astronomical event. I am, emotionally, reaching out the divinity that I see in the Cosmos.”

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Return to practice

Sapling: public domain image.

Sapling: public domain image.

Over at Patheos, John Beckett has some excellent advice that couldn’t come at a better time. John’s post is directed to his fellow Polytheists, but the advice within is applicable to all of us.

Long story short, I have recently quit a job that was making me stressed, tired and miserable.

I don’t have another job safely lined up to go to, so I’m probably looking at a few weeks to months of living off savings, temp work and whatever I can do to get by. It’s a tough choice, but the right one.

At times like this, it’s easy to neglect the basics: health (mental and physical), friends, hobbies and especially spirituality. I don’t know why, but for me that’s always the first to go in stressful times (which is ironically when I need it the most). So John’s post resonates with me, in its calls to look after body and soul.

John writes:

“Maintain your daily practice, even if all you can do is go outside, look up at the sky, and speak the names of your Gods. Even if those skies are cloudy or filled with storms. Even if the only offering you can afford is tap water. Honor your ancestors – they got through situations every bit as difficult as these. Stay connected to the land where you are – it’s your foundation both figuratively and literally.”

Even just the simple act of showing up at the home shrine, maybe meditating for 5 minutes, maybe doing a short ritual, or even just sitting there, is a way of keeping going, building a bridge between now and then. Between who you are, and who you want to be.

So my plan is to simply and gently return to practice. To take time in the mornings and again in the evenings to do my OBOD meditation exercises, or do some yoga, or simply be.

Breathe. Image: Gemma Stiles on Flickr (CC2.0)

Breathe. Image: Gemma Stiles on Flickr (CC2.0)

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Taliesin

One of the major folktales, or legends, in the Bardic tradition is that of Taliesin, from the Welsh Mabinogion. The tale tells of the goddess Ceridwen, who brewed a potion (the Awen) to help her son, who was the ugliest in the land, gain wisdom. She hired a local lad, Gwion, to tend the cauldron and, as these myths tend to go, Gwion ended up accidentally gaining the wisdom of the Awen himself. A series of shape-shifting chases between him and Ceridwen follow, and eventually Gwion, as a grain of wheat, is eaten by Ceridwen, in the form of a hen. Nine months later, guess what? Ceridwen gives birth to Gwion, now transformed into Taliesin, the greatest Bard in Britain.

Well, that’s the short version anyway. Far better in the case of folklore to hear the tale than read it, and so here’s Damh the Bard with his brilliant verse rendition of “Ceridwen and Taliesin”.

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Initiation

Birch, traditionally associated with beginnings. Image by me.

Birch, traditionally associated with beginnings. Image by me.

This weekend, I did the initiation ceremony for the Bardic Grade of OBOD, which is the formal announcement of my intention to work through the course and also a sign that I am part of the wider community of the Order. Now, OBOD works with the traditional framework of a “mystery school”, so the details of their initiations and training are kept members-only so I can’t go into detail about the ceremony (I have my own feelings about this, but that’s another post). However, I will say that I was reassured that there were no oaths to swear, no promises to make,  and nothing to commit me to OBOD, the course, or Druidry itself for any longer than I want to explore it.

I’ve done this initiation before, when I first did the Bardic course years ago (although I never fully finished), but re-doing it was for me a sign that I intend to see it through this time. Initiation is a funny thing, because of course the ceremony/ritual itself confers no magic powers, and certainly doesn’t make you a Druid (or a Bard, which let’s face it, is a title I’m even less comfortable with – I have no musical ability and my poetry is rubbish).

John Michael Greer, ever my go-to-guy for sensible down to earth advice on Druidry, writes in The Druidry Handbook*:

“Too many people forget that the word ‘initiation’ simply means ‘beginning’. They mistakenly assume that the simple act of passing through an initiation ceremony by itself makes them Druids. Records of ancient Druid schools, where some students spent twenty years mastering the Druid curriculum, provide a useful corrective to this sort of thinking.”

Becoming a Druid is a lifelong journey, and all the courses, Orders, Fellowships and books in the world are only paths through the forest, or vehicles along the path, not the whole sum of Druidry itself. Having said that, I am excited to fully start a new chapter in my personal exploration of the Druid way.

*By the way, if you don’t fancy joining a group or can’t afford a course like the OBOD one, I highly recommend The Druidry Handbook as an excellent place to start exploring Druidry.

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Burn the witch

Now, I’m not normally a Radiohead fan: I tend to like my music more metallic, thanks, but I couldn’t resist sharing the video for their latest single, Burn the Witch. Who wouldn’t love a Camberwick Green style claymation recreation of the Wicker Man? Perfect for Beltane!

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Beltane and ritual

Spring blossom. Image by me.

Spring blossom. Image by me.

This Beltane, I did my first OBOD Druid ritual for a long time, using the ritual booklet that came with the Bardic course materials, and to be honest, it felt…off.

There was a bit of language about “mothering” and “fathering” and “birth” that squicked me out a bit given my childfree life choices. This is something I’ve come across in OBOD a few times before, and while it is possible to interpret fertility metaphorically, or in terms of the fertility of the land (as I did in my ADF Virtues essay on the topic), when it’s presented in pretty blunt terms of male-female-child, it becomes harder to see it in this way.

So, I removed those references and re-worked the main rite a bit, but even so, something just didn’t quite work. The traditional format of the rite included circle casting, honouring the four cardinal directions etc which was a bit fiddly. Making sure that I was walking the right way around the central altar and facing the right way at different points took me out of the spirit of the ritual a bit and reminded me of the “sit, stand, kneel” motions of Catholic mass.

In the end, I went ahead and added an ADF-style toast and libation to the Three Kindreds, because the rite otherwise felt a bit empty, a bit too cerebral and didn’t have much in the way of practical action.

So, an underwhelming experience to be sure. Now, I’m not going to discount the entire OBOD course or tradition because of one bad ritual, and to be honest, Beltane has always been one of those festivals that’s a bit lost on me, with its usual associations with (heterosexual) sex and childbirth. But it was an interesting experience to find myself missing the ADF style of ritual, and way of “doing” Druidry.

Maybe there’s a way to combine the best of both worlds, and indeed the AODA rituals given in John Michael Greer’s Druidry Handbook seem to have elements of both OBOD and ADF style Druidry. I might try writing my own ritual for the next High Day at the Summer Solstice.

Other than that, I had a lovely Beltane! The weather was amazing and really felt like Summer is coming, and I had a great day out at a local food and drink fair, which was one of those community traditions that I always think of as “folk Pagan”.

Hope you had a great time this Beltane too!

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