The call of the Immensity: An interview with Brendan Myers, philosopher – part 1
- Dr. Glenys Livingstone, author of PaGaian Cosmology – Dec. 21
- Dr. Chet Raymo, author of When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy – Dec. 25
- Chris Stedman, author of Nonprophet Status – Jan. 8
- Dr. Brendan Myers, author of Loneliness and Revelation – Jan. 15
- Rev. Michael J. Dangler, Druid and Senior Priest of Three Cranes Grove – Jan. 22
- Dr. Ursula Goodenough, author of The Sacred Depths of Nature – Jan. 29
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!
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:
- Loneliness and Revelation
- The Other Side of Virtue
- A Pagan Testament
- The Mysteries of Druidry
- Dangerous Religion (out of print)
Brendan is also one of the hosts of Standing Stone and Garden Gate podcast.
Bio text courtesy of Brendan Myers’ Facebook page.