– by B. T. Newberg
Welcome to the second year of Humanistic Paganism. After starting up last spring, we published pieces from more than a dozen authors, pumped out three ebooks, and interviewed some big-name authors. What’s more, last week saw our 100th post!
Now we’re looking forward to a brand new year of quality work. What should we try to accomplish this year?
We might take a cue from critical voices. Analysis of critiques aired in last fall’s challenge post, as well as comments on various other posts, yielded some interesting findings: most critiques appear able to be categorized as variations on four essential questions that keep coming up and again.
These questions were first introduced in our ebook, Year One: A Year of Humanistic Paganism. Its Dynamic Table of Contents organizes all of last year’s articles according to how they address these four questions. Each piece has something to say, though none gives a comprehensive reply.
In the coming year, perhaps we should devote more explicit attention to these critical issues.
Without further ado, then, what are the four essential questions?
1. What do we mean?
This question asks for more clarity and nuance in our discourse. What do mean by things like “gods” and “spirit”? What do we mean by “Paganism”? What is entailed by “responsibility?”
To a certain extent we must accept Weber’s admonition that we can only define something at the end of a discussion, since the discussion itself will illumine the concept. But that’s no excuse not to try. We need to strive toward working definitions for our major ideas.
One thing I hope to generate this year is a general glossary for HP. Key terms will be given a range of definitions so that everyone is on the same page.
2. Why do it?
Why bother with mythology and gods? Why bother with ritual? What do we get out of it? What’s the point?
These questions ask for the value of naturalistic practices. Obviously there must be some value, or else we wouldn’t do them – but what is that value exactly?
Thomas Schenk’s Bicycle Meditation post did a good job of describing the shift in consciousness or mental state derived from that practice. Eli Effinger-Weintraub’s Deities as Role Models post indicated how the figures of myth can be employed like role models to draw out traits in oneself, like orderliness or responsibility.
In the same way, we must be clear about what it is that we get out of our practices. And if the value is ineffable, then we should say so.
3. Why not do otherwise?
Why not use fiction or theater to achieve the same ends as ritual? Why not speak of “psychology” instead of “spirit?”
This question is more difficult to describe, as the difference between this one and the last is subtle. Number two asks for the value derived, while number three demands we compare that value with other potential sources. There also might be an implied assumption that if we can get the same benefits by other means, maybe we should. Is there something unique about what we’re doing, such that no other activity can bear quite the same fruits? If so, why?
None of last year’s articles addressed this question in any explicit way. Is it a question we are obligated to answer? If not, should it at least be a question we ask ourselves?
Since the paths that make up modern Paganism generally do not claim to be the One True Way, there is no reason to try to show they are inherently better than other religions or secular activities. Yet it may be worth our while to show that naturalistic ritual activity is not just another way to get your kicks.
In such a discussion, it may be helpful to distinguish instrumental value from intrinsic value. The former indicates value as a means of achieving some end, while the latter conveys the value of a thing as an end in itself.
4. Is it responsible?
Even if it can be shown that there is some unique value in what we do, something that can’t be obtained any other way, there is still the problem of whether it may be harmful to ourselves or others.
Could we be wasting valuable time and energy without contributing anything of value to society? Are we potentially misleading others in our words or activities?
These are the sorts of questions that engage the issue of responsibility. The second critical question asks for value, the third for comparative value, and now this one asks for net value. Are we doing more good than harm?
Incidentally, one of the reasons I started HP was the responsibility issue. I felt I could not responsibly invoke the figures of myth if I wasn’t explicit about my naturalistic understanding. Otherwise, my example might be taken as implicit support for literalistic religion. To be responsible, I had to be honest. That’s one reason why HP exists.
Writing for our critics is writing for ourselves
Ultimately, it only benefits us to answer these questions. Not only does it present a stronger case to critics, but it helps us clarify our own paths. In the coming year, we can strive to be more clear about these issues.
What do you think? Are some of these questions unnecessary to answer? Or are there other critical questions not covered here?