Pagan Theology

Sexytimes In Public

Oh my stars.  Catholics are asking to be treated differently due to their religious beliefs when it comes to providing health care for women who work for them.  The Republicans, sensing an opportunity that was actually a mistake, have done their best to pile onto this issue, in some very inelegant ways [1].  There are a lot of political arguments here, ones that have been stated much more clearly and interestingly elsewhere [2].   Personally I do believe that there should be an exemption for institutions whose primary function is religious on matters of principle where it is reasonable and practical.  This is a fundamental principle of religious freedom, consistent with the Native American’s use of peyote in their religious rituals.  But if you are operating a Burger King, or a hospital, then it’s only logical that the same laws that apply to the guy at the gas station should apply to your secular business [3].   After all, Native Americans can use peyote in their religious rituals, but they can’t just go selling it at the neighborhood convenience mart [4].  Religious freedom requires that the activity actually relate to religion.

But that is a political discussion, one we’ve had a lot of already, and one where my opinion is just an opinion.  What I want to do is try and figure out what a Pagan theological perspective would bring to the kerfuffle. The underlying problem here is that the Catholic Church, along with Rick Santorum, does not endorse contraception except in certain exceptional cases.  Santorum tipped the real reason for the opposition to contraception: it leads to naughtiness [5].  That is not a church/state issue: it’s an issue of theology that we can talk about.  In fact I believe it’s related to something that we as Pagans know all to well: the original split between Paganism and the book religions.  It goes to one of the core beliefs that separate us.  We like the world.  They don’t.  They look forward to what lies beyond while we enjoy what is here.

Now before anyone starts fussing about how Christians are very much engaged in the world, in stewardship, in charity, in good works and whatnot, I will say that social justice is just one way to engage with the world.  What I’m talking about is how we engage personally and spiritually with the world.  Whether we see ourselves as part of it, or in some way opposed to it.  For the book religions suffering and pain are one of the main things they focus on. And suffering comes from the world.

Christian religious documents are almost always talking about relief of suffering, forgiveness from sin because that leads to suffering, the poor of spirit, the downtrodden, the forlorn.  Their message is that “we got your back” and “it will get better.”  The whole point of Christianity is Easter: the overcoming of the suffering on the cross as a sacrificial atonement for sin.  And sin, ultimately, is bad behavior that results in someone having a less than pleasant experience in their lives [6].

Pagans do not tend to dwell on suffering.  Instead we have a great interest in engaging with and affecting this world.  In the distant past this detachment from others’ suffering could be attributed to a general lack of empathy and an inability to place yourself in others’ shoes [7].   However we can bring this view up to date by simply acknowledging that our moral imperative comes from a strong sense of engagement with the world.  Through ritual, through magic, and through actively lived lives we seek to bring love and laughter and joy into the world because that is what we believe it deserves from us.  Because our Gods and Goddesses are part of this world, we seek to experience and value the world as it is, not as merely a way station on a journey of transcendence.  Denial not tied to a practical or spiritual reason is ridiculous.  Dominating the world is terribly immoral because she is our mother, we should respect and value her, not kill her.  And enjoying the hell out of ourselves can and should be included as part of what we hold sacred.

In case you have not noticed, this is not necessarily the view of the book religions.  Atonement, penance, and discipline are all designed to maintain a distance between the world and the followers.   The promise of future rewards focuses them on present-day denial and asceticism.  Social discipline is enforced through abstract strictures such as self-denial, guilt, and ostracism.  These negative punishments are seen as essential to keep deeply flawed people (sinners) in line.

Pagans’ on the other hand start from the opposite end of the line.  We are more concerned about how we can make a positive effect in the world than in beating ourselves up for things that we have done wrong.  For us an experience of the divine is not achieved through denial and discipline, particularly social discipline.  Instead it is achieve through strongly held ties, relationships with divinity, and concepts of honor and courage.   Punishment, and guilt is a form of punishment, are secondary approaches in a Pagan approach to social discipline simply because they are prescriptive and reactive.   Who would you rather have around, someone who wants to be with you, or someone who is made to be there?   How would you want to relate to others, through a sense of duty, or a sense of joy?  We choose joy.

Now Christian theology will say that the true change occurs within the believer’s heart.  Believers will want to behave in ways consistent with Christ’s teachings because they have been changed through the love (and/or blood) of Christ.  There really is no coercion involved, that those following a “true” faith path will do things that are right simply because they are consistent with what they feel inside.  Just because what they feel happens to be written down in the Bible is simply a reflection of those who have preceded them finding the right way and writing it down.

Other than the writing it down part, this is quite consistent with Paganism, in that our inner feelings guide us instead of some formal doctrine or prescription.   We don’t even get to participate in our religion unless the hands of the Goddess guide us toward each other.  It is a rare Pagan tradition that seeks out converts or proselytizes.  In many traditions there can be a bit of effort involved in finding a coven that will admit you, and fits with your path.  We find our way into the Pagan religion through the hands of the Gods and Goddesses, from their voice within us and within those we encounter.   Those who come into our religion, come to it through an inner voice.

But there is a place where we diverge from even this ideal representation of how Christians’ come up with their belief.  We don’t try to tell other people what to do.  This bears repeating:  Pagan’s don’t claim religious exclusivity, so we are more than willing to put up with other people’s bad behavior as long as it does not cause anyone a problem (“harm none”).  My inner voice and relationship with the Gods and Goddesses may not be your voice or path.  Each has their own path, each is valid, and each deserves our respect (including the Christian path).  Christians claim universality: that their belief is true and others are not.  This causes endless trouble.

Combine the tendency to focus on denial, suffering, and asceticism with the tendency to try and tell other people how to behave and you get a recipe for trouble.   In the case of the insurance kerfuffle there are two ways to parse the Church’s objection to Obama’s plan.  On the one hand it could be they object because the church is offended at having to pay for contraception, which it does not believe in.  This is a logically straightforward proposition:  that you should not have to pay for something that offends your religious sensibility.  However there are a lot of things I suspect other, more liberal, traditions would prefer not to pay for so the argument tends to not be generally applicable [8].  Likewise, the argument does not generalize well because the church is certainly paying the people who work for it, who, in turn, use the same church money to buy all kinds of things that the church might not approve of. (Perhaps there are even closet Witches within the church’s more secular institutions buying athames, wands, and incense.  Perhaps some of them are friends of mine…)

Another version of the argument would be that the Church does not want to encourage the sort of behavior that contraception encourages.  As Santorum says, contraceptives will be used to commit sin, and we should be discouraging this.  This argument is a more general argument compared to the “don’t use my money” argument.  That’s because the money is just one means to achieve the broader objective of controlling behavior. It is the objectionable behavior that is not wanted, and anything that the church can do to discourage the behavior is a good thing.

This more robust argument places the theology of sex and contraception squarely in the middle of the controversy.   This is in direct opposition to Paganism, where sex is a great, sacred, and natural thing.

So what does all this mean for us?  It means that with Beltane coming up we should appreciate both the religious liberty and freedom that we have, and our ability to find joy in all the acts of the Goddess.  The argument that the insurance requirement violates religious freedom only goes so far, as far as their desire to discourage sex outside of their version of marriage.  Because they wish to discourage things that permit others, including Pagan’s, to engage in actions they don’t approve of they are actually diminishing our freedoms as they seek to expand theirs.  In a democratic society there are compromises to be made, and Obama made them.

But we can do more, and we should do more because the debate between our position and theirs is far more fundamental and important than simply who pays for insurance.  We love life, we see joy in the world, and we believe the world is the place where we experience the divine.  We need to do everything we can to advance that positive, life affirming, and engaging view of how religion should be.  We should welcome those who seek to move on from the world-denying view of the Catholic Church and welcome them into a joyous and worldly Pagan religion.  We don’t have to proselytize, we just have to keep raising our Pagan babies and welcoming others into the circle.

So lets enjoy Beltane and the bringing in of the May.  Lets welcome everyone to dance around our maypoles.  While keeping a careful eye out for those who might want to chop them down.

[1] lets see there’s Rush:  http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2012/03/morning-viewing-stewart-on-rush-117425.html and the Virginia legislature:  http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/story/2012-03-07/virginia-abortion-ultrasound-bill/53401720/1 and now Santorum is trying to give Obama the male vote:  http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-57399226-503544/santorum-says-obama-not-enforcing-internet-porn-laws/.

[2] For example:  http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/293153/religious-freedom-social-justice-george-weigel and http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-end-of-the-catholic-church-as-we-know-it/2012/03/09/gIQAB1jx5R_story.html.

[3]  I’m ignoring the crazy-ass Blunt Amendment.  It makes no sense to say that health care should be some sort of Darwinian free-for-all.  It makes even less sense that those who tend to want that sort of thing hail from the followers of the Christ.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Native_American_Church

[5] Here’s the quote:  “One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country…. Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be”  http://theweek.com/article/index/223041/9-controversial-rick-santorum-quotes

[6]  You can view sin as the violation of some rule or law, or you can take it as an activity that produces a less fulfilling spiritual and physical life.  Fooling around a lot can result in many different kinds of hurt for those involved.  Not caring for others and only focusing on yourself means that you never grow the humility and broader perspective that comes from such sacrifice.  That leaves you less of a person, stunted, if you will.  Ultimately, in Christian thinking, it separates you from god.  From a simple Pagan perspective it is a behavior that not only harms you, but also harms others and thus should be avoided.

[7]  Empathy wasn’t always a big feature of Pagan religions, see, for example, Rome.  But Christianity didn’t quite increase empathy very quickly, as is illustrated by the Inquisition and the burning times.   In general there was a distinct lack of empathy up until the enlightenment, so, given that Christianity had been around for quite a while before then, even the influence of Christian teachings on empathy is somewhat suspect.

[8]  By “generally applicable” I mean both that is a flawed argument, and that it does not apply symmetrically to other situations and other organizations.  In other words you are arguing for a special condition for the church, and for this particular situation.  Making an argument that applies mainly to yourself makes everyone suspicious that the argument is self-serving.  Catholic theology would place all these argument into the category of “remote material cooperation with evil” or doing something that is not in itself a sin but promotes sin.   If this is the argument that they make, and many in the church do, then it may be bad Catholic theology as this may not clearly fit into this category.  See, for example, http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2012-02-14/catholic-bishop-morals-birth-control-contraception/53095538/1