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The call of the Immensity: An interview with Brendan Myers, philosopher – part 1

January 15, 2012
Brendan Myers in the Rocky Mountains

“I am a kind of Pagan that the modern revival doesn’t know what to do about, nor how to deal with, at least not yet. But I am a kind of Pagan, nonetheless.”

Snowflake by Simply InnocuousWinterviews continues!  From the Solstice (Dec. 21st) till the next Cross-quarter (Feb. 4th), we’re bringing you non-stop interviews and other goodies from big-name authors.  Mark your calendar!

This week we chat with Dr. Brendan Myers, philosopher and proud Pagan.  In Part 1 of this meaty interview, Myers shares a little about his difficulties finding acceptance as a Pagan intellectual, and a lot about his unique philosophy rooted in virtue, courage, and universal experiences he calls “Immensities.”

B. T. Newberg: As an author of five books, going on six, you’ve grown a body of work that emerges from and speaks to your roots as a Pagan.  And yet you’ve been accused of being a non-Pagan.  Why?  What was that experience like?

Brendan Myers: There are several reasons why this accusation appeared. One has to do with the fact that I am not especially interested in ritual anymore. I certainly participate in community rituals at the festivals I attend, but I don’t feel much need for ritual in private groups or while alone at home.  I’m not interested in spellcraft either, or energy work, seeking out supernatural experiences, or developing psychic talents. And finally, in my books and other written works, I almost never speak about the gods. This has lead some Pagans, near and far, to conclude that my paganism isn’t based on “experience” anymore, and that it is therefore not a Pagan path.

This is sometimes followed by the caveat that there’s nothing wrong with not being a Pagan. But the accusation stings a little. It’s as if I’m being accused of fraud. However much Pagans talk about openness, freedom to believe, and tolerance of difference, there is still a party line to toe.

The accusation also stems from a certain stream of opinion that is popular in the modern Pagan movement, especially in the United States, where people tend to be suspicious of intellectuals. This stream of opinion holds that rationality, formal education, and intellectual or scientific analysis of things, which together are sometimes called “book learning”, are always inherently inferior to intuition, gut instinct, personal experience, and practical action.

“Follow your heart” is the slogan of this world view, as if the heart can never be wrong. And since I have pursued excellence in the intellectual side of things for all my adult life, it follows (so the accusers say) that I must be missing out on the intuitive side, and therefore missing out on a full and proper spiritual life.

This source of the accusation depends on a false dichotomy, but there’s no point in saying so to someone who believes it. They only repeat their initial claim about how intellectual people are missing out, as if repeating the claim makes it true; and then they add that any criticism of that claim is personally hurtful to them, and the discussion ends.

The reality is this: I am a kind of Pagan that the world has not seen in a very long time, perhaps not since the fall of ancient Druids, or the end of classical Greece and Rome. I find inspiration and enlightenment in the exercise of reason, and the courageous use of my own mind. When I make an intellectual discovery or an intellectual creation, I experience the same ecstasy as the shaman in his trance, and the dancer in her dance.

I reject the dichotomy between the mind and the heart, between thinking and feeling. I have as much intuition and passion as anyone, but I have an enquiring and disciplined mind too.

I am a kind of Pagan that the modern revival doesn’t know what to do about, nor how to deal with, at least not yet. But I am a kind of Pagan, nonetheless.

BTN: I think a lot of us here at Humanistic Paganism feel that way.

BM: And I will do my part to help lead us all to the island, no matter what my critics say; and I hope they will thank me, in the end.

BTN: Your brand of spirituality has been called “Pagan Existentialism.”  Is that a fair characterization?  Why or why not?

BM: I suppose it is partially fair, at least of the kind of work I’ve done in the last five or six years. I want to look first at the way people actually live and move and exist in the world, and then afterward consider the meaning, the nature, or the spirit of what we see. This is certainly consistent with the existentialist proposition that “existence precedes essence.”

I’m also concerned with questions about what it is to be alive and human, how best to relate to each other and to our environment, what a worthwhile life is, and what happiness is. These kinds of questions also concern existentialists. Even religious existentialists were more concerned with these questions than with questions like whether God exists, or how best to interpret various scriptures.

The best known existentialists – people like Sartre and Camus, and perhaps their predecessors Heidegger and Nietzsche – were atheists. I’m not an atheist. But I do have serious doubts about the usual beliefs many Pagans have about the gods.

More importantly, however, I tend to think that the human questions are much more interesting and important than the supernatural ones. For whether the gods exist or do not exist, whether magic is real or whether it is fantasy, whether we have souls and whatever might happen to us when we die, still we must live here and now, as we are, in this world, and still we must decide what to do with ourselves.

These are questions about the meaning of life. They cannot be answered by appealing to the gods, or by casting spells. They can only be answered by courageous use of human intelligence and heart.

I suppose being called an existentialist is not so bad. It means I get to hang out with people like Kierkegaard, Tillich, Bultmann, Jaspers, and Marcel. Maybe also Martin Buber, and Pico della Mirandola too, if I stretch it a bit.

I might prefer to call my work “Areteology.” This is a word I invented in my doctoral thesis to describe the study of virtue and excellence

BTN: I see, “Areteaology” because arete is the Greek word for “virtue”…

Or, maybe my work should be called “Brendanist”. But I’m sure a name like that will never catch on.

BTN: I wish it would, though personally I would change it “Brandonist”!  Ha, ha (that being my name and all).

But jokes aside…

You said you almost never speak of the gods in your books.  This stands out as a striking absence in The Other Side of Virtue, where you describe a key concept of your work: the Immensity.  This concept suggests, to me at least, a sense of the powerful, awe-inspiring, even numinous aspects of existence.  It might be tempting to interpret gods as Immensities, or Immensities as gods.  Could you give a brief description of what the Immensity is, and whether you see any potential relation to deities?

BM: The idea of the Immensity occurred to me while I was visiting a forest near Laubach, in the foothills of the Vogelsberg region of central Germany.

For many months, I had been trying to reconcile the relativism and radical individualism of our modern age, with the serious need to affirm values like human compassion, environmental awareness, and social justice. I had also been re-reading my Celtic mythology, and a number of Norse sagas that friends had recommended to me.

It was clear that the heroes of these stories had a definite moral centre. They did not hedge about with relativist disclaimers: they did what they believed to be right, and they did it with conviction.

Yet the gods, in such stories, did not tell them what to do. The gods sometimes sent heroes on quests, but only very rarely did they prescribe universal moral laws, “Ten Commandments” style. And when they did, the human beings often ignored them anyway.

I wanted to know what the logic was behind the heroic moral centre, and if that centre did not come from the gods, then where did it come from? And do we still have that centre?

A thunderstorm over the hills reminded me that there are, in this world, a few genuinely universal experiences and problems. And it occurred to me, while my friend and I were running for shelter, that these experiences could stand in the place of the law-maker gods of monotheism.

I borrowed the name “Immensity” from W.B. Yeats’ introduction to Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men, and defined it as an event, experience, occasion, or situation in human life which is experienced by everyone, at some part of her life. It tends to be surprising and unexpected, and beyond any one person’s ability to understand or control. Yet because it has these properties, it can prompt some serious soul searching, and can call the meaning and worth of one’s life into question.

That event, the Call of the Immensity, has both metaphysical and moral significance, and seemed to me exactly what I was looking for.

One might be tempted to say that the gods are Immensities. Many people experience the presence of the gods in precisely this way: a being of timelessness and greatness, whose nature and existence surpasses any one person’s ability to understand.

Suppose we accepted that proposition. We might then be tempted to infer that therefore all immensities are gods. But that would be wrong. If you know your Aristotle, that move is called ‘inverting an A-form proposition’, and is a logical fallacy (in just the same way, you could say that all cookies are delicious things, but not that all delicious things are cookies).

So, not all Immensities are gods. But this is not so bad. Remembering C. S. Lewis’ adage that a garden doesn’t have to be inhabited by faeries to be beautiful, I too find that the Immensity doesn’t have to be a god to be numinous. It just has to come from beyond the self.

In The Other Side of Virtue I identified three kinds of Immensities: 1) the Earth and natural phenomena generally, like my Germanic thunderstorm; 2) other people, which may presumably include the gods, but also includes your next-door neighbour; and finally, 3) death. In Loneliness and Revelation I added a fourth: loneliness itself. There might be more. And the search for them can be exciting!

The Call of the Immensity thus describes a robust moral philosophy that has universal appeal, yet does not infringe on anyone’s individualism, nor oppress anyone under a new or well-disguised moral absolutism.

By the way, if the Von Däniken Hypothesis (the idea that the gods were actually aliens who visited Earth in the distant past) turns out to be true, my theory would remain intact. The natural Immensities would still be what they are, and on encountering them we would still feel the call to examine ourselves, and to live heroic lives. Moral laws that issue from a god, on the other hand, would suddenly be in big trouble.

To be continued…

Join us tomorrow for Part 2 of Brendan Myers’ interview, where he talks about the “revelation of presence” in nature, architecture, and other entities.  Myers also gives us a sneak peak at his upcoming book Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear!

Brendan Myers' books

The interviewee

Brendan Myers

Canadian philosopher and writer Brendan Myers is the author of several well-respected books on mythology, folklore, society and politics, ethics, and spirituality.  His work is studied by college professors, social activist groups, interfaith groups, Celtic cultural associations, and even Humanist societies, in many countries around the world.  In 2008 he received OBOD’s prestigious Mount Haemus award for professional research in Druidry.  Since earning his Ph.D in environmental ethics at the National University of Ireland, Galway, he has lectured at several colleges and universities in Ontario, and toured much of Canada and Europe as a public speaker.  In his varied career Brendan has also worked as a musician, a labour union leader, a government researcher, an environmentalist, and as a simple country gardener.  Brendan’s books in print to date include:

Brendan is also one of the hosts of Standing Stone and Garden Gate podcast.

Bio text courtesy of Brendan Myers’ Facebook page.

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41 Comments
  1. January 15, 2012 8:10 am

    I can identify to some degree with the part about not being as interested in ritual. I am still very interested in ritual, but my interests have changed since diving into a more naturalistic approach. In ADF Druidry, I became accustomed to a very elaborate ritual structure for high days (sabbats). Now, my focus is much more on personal devotional-style rituals in front of my altar, mainly for purposes of working out my inner thoughts and feelings. The ritual style is much more simple, but still effective. And I don’t currently have a consistent way of observing the high days, though I’m trying to work one out, perhaps with the aid of Glenys Livingstone’s PaGaian structure.

    The more elaborate ritual style produced much more dramatic alterations of emotion and consciousness, but required a lot of work. The simpler devotional style’s effects are less dramatic but more precise and efficient in tweaking my pscyhology.

    I know we’ve talked about differences in ritual on the Naturalistic Paganism yahoo group. The consensus seemed to favor simpler rituals over more elaborate ones for naturalists, which seems consistent with my experience.

    • Jonathan Blake permalink
      January 15, 2012 8:58 am

      I believe I’ve mentioned my similar disinterest in ritual, though I wouldn’t mind what you mention, a simple devotional set of rituals meant simply to keep me mindful of the wider natural world.

      I enjoyed this portion of the interview, and hope that the next part will cover virtue ethics. If not, I guess there’s always Myers’ books. :)

      • January 15, 2012 1:11 pm

        It would have been fun to go into virtue ethics, but that would have been a big discussion. Myers’ book is worth checking out. Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is also one of the recent landmark works on the subject.

      • January 16, 2012 12:41 pm

        I second Jonathan’s statement, especially the part about rituals meant to keep you mindful of the wider natural world. I often do my Awareness Meditation for this purpose.

  2. Trent Fowler permalink
    January 15, 2012 10:57 am

    Oooh, this is really cool. To read another account of an arch-rationalist who is nonetheless a neopagan mystic, check this out:

    http://catb.org/~esr/writings/dancing.html

    It is almost singlehandedly responsible for my current interest in the topics discussed on this blog. If I ever delve deeply into ritual and magic (instead of just playing with the ideas like I have been), it will be because of a causal change stretching back to my having read that essay.

    I’ve been intellectually groping towards the concept of areteology for a while now, glad to finally have a word for it. I studied psychology in college, and I find that most people’s interest in psychology stems from their wanting to understand and alleviate human problems like psychopathy, autism, or mental illness. Laudable though this is, I’ve never felt the same draw to the negative aspects of what we are. Rather, I want to study what makes us virtuous and intelligent and how we can be more of both.

    “Remembering C. S. Lewis’ adage that a garden doesn’t have to be inhabited by faeries to be beautiful, I too find that the Immensity doesn’t have to be a god to be numinous. It just has to come from beyond the self.”

    In what sense does an immensity have to come from beyond the self? Do you mean it has to be external to your body, or just not something you’ve willed into existence? I ask because one of the great “immensities” of my own life was a severe panic attack I had several years ago. I don’t have a history of such attacks, and I haven’t had a major one since, making its sudden appearance incredibly frightening. It also prompted some of the deepest thinking I’ve done about morality and human consciousness.

    • January 15, 2012 1:17 pm

      I’ll check that link out, Trent. Thanks.

      >most people’s interest in psychology stems from their wanting to understand and alleviate human problems like psychopathy, autism, or mental illness. Laudable though this is, I’ve never felt the same draw to the negative aspects of what we are. Rather, I want to study what makes us virtuous and intelligent and how we can be more of both.

      Me too. The difference for me stems from my own situation. I don’t have any drastic pscyhopathies (at least not that I know of!), but I do want to live the best life I can. So I’m less interested in what brings the abnormal to normality and more in what brings the normal to the optimum. (“normal” – whatever that means!)

    • January 15, 2012 1:19 pm

      >In what sense does an immensity have to come from beyond the self? Do you mean it has to be external to your body, or just not something you’ve willed into existence? I ask because one of the great “immensities” of my own life was a severe panic attack I had several years ago.

      To enlarge the question a bit, a great candidate for an Immensity in my view would be the unconscious itself, which might pass if “the self” is considered to be the conscious ego.

      • January 15, 2012 5:29 pm

        You took the words out of my mouth Brandon. In addition to nature, other people, and death, I experience parts of myself as “Immensities” also. (What a great word! Thanks Brendan!) They force us to confront our finitude, challenge us to create meaning for ourselves, and force us to confront the “other”. I looked up that W.B. Yeats quote Brendan referred to: “… we thirst for something beyond ourselves, and the mind flows outward to a natural immensity.” That is what “god” means for me, and it includes the gods within (the unconscious) as well as the gods without (nature, other people).

        I saw that there are, first and above all,
        The hidden forces, blind necessities,
        Named Nature, but the thing’s self unconceived :
        Then follow, — how dependent upon these,
        We know not, how imposed above ourselves,
        We well know, — what I name the gods, a power
        Various or one ; for great and strong and good
        Is there, and little, weak and bad there too,
        Wisdom and folly : say, these make no God, —
        What is it else that rules outside man’s self?

        — Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book

  3. January 16, 2012 12:57 pm

    I have a growing understanding of what naturalistic folk mean when referring to ‘god’ or likewise. Having read this interview I think I prefer “immensity” in place of the naturalistic ‘god’ as it incorporates Brendan’s aspects of things everyone experiences regardless of worldview, and the more personal and psychological experiences that a few have described here, if I’m not mistaken. Not to mention that it is less confusing as it doesn’t get misinterpreted as being literal deities, yet could very well include them too for those who do believe in their existence.

    I do wonder though, what does ‘Pagan’ mean to you Brendan? I also wonder if it has become or is becoming a catch-all, as it has such a broad scope that I’m not sure if it really has meaning anymore?

    Brandon, as this is your blog, what is your meaning for it when you refer to it?

    • January 16, 2012 3:10 pm

      When I use the word “Pagan”, I usually mean one of a range of religions or spiritual paths inspired by pre-Christian European polytheist traditions.

      • January 16, 2012 3:30 pm

        How do you consider Aztec or Mayan inspired traditions? Are the ‘earth-based’ paths without any ‘pre-Christian European polythiestic’ source being created today not pagan in your view? How does the four-fold path you’re creating fit into this definition?

        • January 16, 2012 4:45 pm

          Ah, I wondered if that would be the next question! That’s why I stuck that “usually” in there. There are a lot of non-Abrahamic religions with varying degrees of similarity. But there are so many that one can’t possibly know them all well enough to talk about them, or generalize to them all, so I usually try to restrict myself to European traditions, or Indo-European + Mesoptamian + Egyptian.

          • January 16, 2012 4:47 pm

            That’s not a judgment that Aztec, Mayan, or other American Indian traditions cannot have a place in HP, just that I’m not claiming to talk about them.

            • January 16, 2012 5:15 pm

              Lol, Good answer :)

              “there are so many that one can’t possibly know them all well enough to talk about them, or generalize to them all”

              So you can’t possibly know what ‘pagan’ is well enough to talk about them or generalize to them all? Then how can there be a definition of pagan? Am I getting that right? :S

            • January 16, 2012 6:13 pm

              No, not quite right. If you only accept Pagan as meaning all non-Abrahamic religions, then yes. But that’s only one accepted definition, it’s not what I mean by it.

            • January 16, 2012 6:19 pm

              Then please explain further, I am intrigued. :)

            • January 16, 2012 8:35 pm

              Sure, but what specifically do you need more clarity on? I tried to give a definition of Pagan that did not go so far as to include all non-Abrahamic religions.

              Maybe this will help. I generally see four different uses of “Pagan” floating about, in order from most restricted to most broad:
              1. Someone belonging to a range of contemporary religions/spiritual paths inspired by pre-Christian European traditions, though not necessarily attempting to recreate them exactly as they were. This meaning can be more precisely denoted by “Contemporary Pagan” or “Neopagan”, but Pagan rolls off the tongue better and serves as a nice shorthand.
              2. Someone belonging to such a contemporary religion or a historical person belonging to said pre-Christian European traditions from those times, e.g. Roman polytheists of Classical times, Norse, Greeks, etc. This usage is somewhat anachronistic as the ancient peoples did not call themselves Pagan but were called that derogatorily by Christians in the late Roman era. Nevertheless, the term has been reclaimed by moderns and now serves to emphasize the link between those moderns and their spiritual ancestors.
              3. Someone belonging to a contemporary religion or path which shares certain things in common with Neopagans, such as an earth-centered nature-based path or an interest in the Occult. E.g. Gaians might be covered under this meaning.
              4. Anyone belonging to a non-Abrahamic religion.

              Here I’ve tried to arrange them in expanding circles of similarity, more or less, and by the time you get to number 4, it’s just absurdly broad. The only thing in common is what they are not. I don’t care much at all for the use of Pagan in that meaning. It has no relevance except with reference to Abrahamic religions. Number 3 strains a little bit perhaps, but I can still understand the similarity. I try to stick to 1 and 2, personally.

              Regardless of how one chooses to understand oneself, labels like these do play a useful social role. They act like keywords in a google search, to use a metaphor. If you don’t have a keyword to search, you can’t find anyone like you, and no one can find you. You can invent your own keyword, or use a very rare one, but your not going to get many “hits” that way. So, until a good new keyword to describe us obtains currency, it fulfills a role, and I’m satisfied with that for the time being. Your mileage may vary. :-)

              Does that clear up things, or only muddy them further?

            • January 16, 2012 8:57 pm

              Clears things up quite well! It looks similar to Isaac Bonewits’s Paleo-Pagan, Meso-Pagan, and Neo-Pagan structure. I suppose 1 covers both Meso and Neo paganism and 2 is Paleo paganism. 3 is a new category for me and am interested in how it is its own category, and 4 is what it is and I agree to your views on that one.

              So do you use ‘Pagan’ mostly for networking? What kind of associations (or ‘keywords’ if you will) do you want to be associated with when using the ideal label (the one that may one day better describe you that obtains currency)?

  4. January 17, 2012 12:42 pm

    This is awesome. I think I’m a bit of a Brendanist myself. Or am I Brandonist? I sense a schism in the offing!

  5. January 20, 2012 8:08 pm

    >So do you use ‘Pagan’ mostly for networking? What kind of associations (or ‘keywords’ if you will) do you want to be associated with when using the ideal label (the one that may one day better describe you that obtains currency)?

    Hmm… in an ideal world, if I had my choice of labels? That’s a toughie.

    The only thing I’ve been able to come up with yet is “Sagecraft.” It’s not an “ism”, it has an image that one may identify with, and it calls up associations with historical traditions that called their ideal the “sage”: e.g. Stoicism, Taoism, Confucianism. On the other hand, it may easily be mistaken as a claim of special knowledge or authority, and it may suggest a relatively passive or armchair approach to life, though it can be very active. So… dunno. Still looking.

    • Jonathan Blake permalink
      January 20, 2012 8:29 pm

      I like saying things like “I practice neopaganism” or “I study the teachings of the Buddha” rather than “I am a neopagan” or “I am a Buddhist”. It keeps me from identifying too closely to an -ism that I might need to leave behind in the future.

      • January 21, 2012 10:23 am

        Good point – I “practice” Neopaganism. In the Vipassana Buddhism that I explored earlier in life, it was always described as a practice, rather than a religion or philosophy. When I came to Paganism, I brought that attitude with me, and even wrote an article for ADF’s journal called “ADF as a Practice.” Perhaps it’s time to revive that expression!

        • January 21, 2012 7:41 pm

          Ooo yes, please do revive that :D Thanks for pointing that out Jonathan!

    • January 20, 2012 8:32 pm

      I think “Sagecraft” sounds pretty cool. Like you said, it doesn’t have an -ism, and craft implies creating or making something. What would a Sage create or make? You mention a claim of special knowledge or authority which would have it make sense as an earned title in that case like that of a (insert area of expertise) Master. Though ‘craft’ implies something that is a continual working progress. And for me ‘sage’ always has that earthy touch because it is also a plant and is considered sacred by at least a few cultures. Which brings it back around to, “what would a Sage create or make?” The only thing I could think of would literally translate to “Make Wise” and that would be the pursuit, like a philosopher or scholar…. I Like It!

      • January 21, 2012 10:29 am

        Thanks, Rua. I didn’t think of the sage plant reference. It’s a pun, but I still kinda like it. :-)

        >Which brings it back around to, “what would a Sage create or make?” The only thing I could think of would literally translate to “Make Wise” and that would be the pursuit, like a philosopher or scholar….

        I think you’re on to something. What the Sage would likely make is what the Alchemists called the Great Work – the transformation of one’s own self. It would turn life itself into a craft, aimed at achieving the worthwhile life, or eudaimonia.

        “Sage” could be either an earned title, as “Druid” was only after 20+ years of training, or a kind of unreachable ideal destination. The latter was how ancient Greco-Romans saw the Sage – as perfection not quite achievable but yet a worthy goal to strive toward, and it seems to be how Confucius saw it too when he says things in the Analects to the effect of “I’ve traveled this world near and far, but never have I might anyone worthy of being called a sage.” He didn’t seem to consider himself worthy of that title either.

        Hmm… Food for thought. Thanks, Rua.

        • January 21, 2012 7:33 pm

          Welcome ^_^

          So… would it be safe to say you do Sagecraft then? Or would it be phrased differently?

          • January 21, 2012 9:45 pm

            Do you mean would a person say “I do Sagecraft”? I guess so, or “I practice Sagecraft.”

            Or did you mean me personally? I’m not ready to describe myself that way yet. Just toying with ideas here.

            • January 21, 2012 10:08 pm

              More or less you personally, perhaps others who self describe, as you’ve pointed it out as a possible association for yourself. Need not worry about my application of Sagecraft toward you if you don’t wish it. I’m having fun playing around with it too :)

  6. January 21, 2012 7:39 pm

    I just remembered the third point in use of “pagan” and was hoping for some clarity on that?

    3. Someone belonging to a contemporary religion or path which shares certain things in common with Neopagans, such as an earth-centered nature-based path or an interest in the Occult. E.g. Gaians might be covered under this meaning.

    Would you be willing to elaborate because it is mighty interesting?

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