Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What's the point?

A couple of weeks ago, Teo Bishop wrote a blog post entitled What is the Point of Your Religion? over on Patheos. He asks the questions:

Why do we do what we do? What does our tradition provide us in the way of making the world we live in, the communities we build, the people that we care for, better? More importantly, how does it inform our capacity to love, our ability to experience joy, or, for that matter, our willingness to stand with the full spectrum of human experience? Is our religion pacifying us, or challenging us to go deeper?

He states a belief that "there has to be a greater purpose to our religious traditions than providing us with a sense of security, comfort, and personal or cultural validation."

Further along, he continues with the questions:

What is the point of your religion? What tools does it provide to you? Does it equip you for defense or for outreach? Does it lead you to question, or does it encourage you to rest in your knowing?

I suspect that most people are seeking purpose and connection. Most people walking a spiritual path will tend to use that path as a tool, possibly one of many, in that search. As always, I can only speak for myself, as a person who strives to practice filidecht within a CR community, and as someone who identifies very much with the geilt as the wounded outsider poet, seeking healing through art and isolation. In this context, community and isolation are not mutually exclusive states. The geilta pass from isolation into community and back into isolation, responding to need and circumstance.

Community and culture make connections possible. Within a reconstructionist movement, history is a centering point and the recovery of polytheist culture is a creative and expansive activity. Done properly - in my opinion, at least - a reconstructionist path recognizes and celebrates diversity without, as Teo suggests, a "need to squabble about whose deity is best, who’s laws are true, and who’s cosmology is most relevant." I fail to see how the acknowledgement of difference must perforce result in such struggles. Polytheism as a spiritual philosophy acknowledges multivalent realities, multiple deities, and the fact that different people will have relationships with different deities. A "need to squabble about whose deity is best" seems to me to be a remnant of the monotheism that so many of us grew up in, and which permeates western culture with the attitude that there can only be one "true" or "best" anything. We see it in monotheism, we see it in the belief in a singular soul-mate or "one true love," we see it in the idea that there is only one "right" model for family or for gender or for sexuality. It's a hard set of beliefs to shake off, but people do, to greater or lesser extents.

When I look at what the traditions I practice bring to the table in the way of helping make the world, community, and the people around me "better," I look at the effect art has. The fili has a duty to speak, to create poetry and to use words as praise and satire in an effort to bring things into balance, to correct flaws, to praise what is praiseworthy. The fili's work is to encourage the practice of virtuous behavior within the context of the good of the community, the improvement of the world, and the improvement of individual human lives. It is to acknowledge the beauty of sacred things. It is to call out violations of virtues when harm is done. As a path that is, as one of its roots, animist, community includes far more than just the human element; the environment and everything in it participates in that community. Particular places are sacred, associated with deities or expressing something numinous that may well be beyond human comprehension.

The geilt recognizes that culture and community can also harm. Humans in groups can be cruel and petty, and can harm and kill those who are more vulnerable. That cruelty and pettiness can destroy more than just other human beings - it can destroy ecosystems, cultures, species. Culture can be a nurturing parent, or it can be a selfish, bullying child, and it us up to all of us to see to it that culture is a nurturer, not a destroyer. Geilta use art as a tool to salvage something of a damaged self after culture and community have destroyed something in their souls.

The paths of the fili and the geilt urge us to look beyond the surface of things, to understand the weight of symbol and image. The idea of passing through the mist, of walking between worlds, is one of mental, emotional, and spiritual expansion. It enables a perception of links without having to perceive everything as undifferentiated. Language as poetry is a very powerful tool for conveying mysteries, for articulating what's wrong with the world and approaches to reparations and healing. Poetry allows language to approach things obliquely, to treat them with subtlety, to envision something new growing from the roots of something ancient.

Why do I do what I do? I think any artist would understand the sense of compulsion that drives creativity. So many writers and poets have spoken of the need to write, or they will die. Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, wrote, “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” This is why I do what I do, because I will die if I do not. I will vanish into a nothingness from which there is no possible escape. That my writing serves a community is a wonderful result of responding to that need, but it is the need itself that is at the heart of everything.

When we are doing what is right for us, doing that thing that our soul will wither and die without, it is likely that our community and our world will benefit from that in some way.

For you, Teo, I offer this quote, from the same source:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

I think it's important to recognize that the experience of comfort is not necessarily complacency. It may in fact be a necessary component of healing and of cooperation. I've lived in an absolute uncertainty of where I would be sleeping on any given night and not knowing where my next meal would come from - it is not particularly conducive to spiritual practice unless that uncertainty is deliberately chosen and embraced. Being forced into it by circumstance can destroy a person. Having enough safety and comfort to keep body and soul together is important. It isn't the only thing, but it is necessary. In a place where we feel some safety, we can learn and grow, we can be compassionate to ourselves, and thus develop our compassion for others. Different cultures, different spiritual paths may express these things in diverse ways, but unless we know there is the possibility of safety and comfort, most people cannot find it in themselves to go deeper. There must be a place of returning so that the risk is worthwhile.

As in all things, this is a process. It unfolds slowly, only rarely emerging in that flash of brilliant light. Even then, there has often been some subterranean motion that has led to that moment of imbas - the filid trained for up to twenty years to be able to experience it, to give them the ground from which to grow, the spring from which to draw water, the techniques used in the process of incubation.


  1. these are great ruminations on the role of the creative/spiritual person in any context!