Humanistic Paganism

How does mythology function in your life?

Thing on Thursday #4

At the top of our values poll results was relationship with mythology.  This week, let’s dig into that idea.

We are not talking about simple falsehoods here, such as the “myth” that money brings happiness.  We’re talking about something deeper.  Here are a few famous definitions:

“Myths are things that never happened but always are.”

– Sallustius, 4th cent. A.D. (quoted in Carl Sagan’s Dragons of Eden)

“Myth is a traditional tale with secondary, partial reference to something of collective importance”

– Walter Burkert, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual

“Myths are public dreams; dreams are private myths.”

– Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By

Examples of myths include the stories of Perseus slaying Medusa, Thor fishing up the world-serpent, or Inanna descending to the underworld.  They usually feature extraordinary figures, such as gods, spirits, or first people, and often describe a primordial time, or how something came to be.

Karen Armstrong notes myths are “usually inseparable from ritual”, so we may think also of the acts that may or may not accompany myths in your life: rituals, devotions, festivals, meditations, visualizations, and so on.

With this in mind, what are the top three ways mythology functions for you?

Remember, this is about myth in your life.  Myths may have served some of these functions at one time without necessarily serving them adequately today or for you.

Please choose your top three.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W.G. CollingwoodThis post is part of a series of councils on matters vital to the future.  The name represents both the generic term for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.

Each week until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday will explore a new controversy.  Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better.  Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word.  We value all constructive opinions.

There are only a few rules:

  • be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
  • be respectful – no rants or flames

Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.  This will also greatly shape the vision that unfolds in our upcoming ebook Our Ancient Future: Visions of Humanistic Paganism.

So please make your voice heard in the comments!

Of consequence and wonder: Exploring the “why’s” of Humanistic Paganism, by C Luke Mula

Pine cone on Loring Park lakeshore

Exploratory practices focus on the moment, discovering wonder in the fact of being.

photo by B. T. Newberg

This week, C Luke Mula challenges us to take a deeper look at the fundamentals.  Why are we doing this?  What do we hope to get out of it?  Through a careful critique of the Fourfold Path, Luke advances our model of Humanistic Paganism.

A good deal of discussion goes on here about what Humanistic Paganism is exactly, and how we put it into practice in our lives. These are good and necessary things to talk about, but what I don’t see much talk of is why we identify with or adhere to Humanistic Paganism. In other words, what could possibly be rewarding about the types of practices that Humanistic Paganism prescribes? What is the practitioner getting out of it?

I want to look into this question today and discuss some of the implications of the answer. Before we do, though, let’s recap the Fourfold Path real quick.

First, there’s Exploration of the Five +1. This principle is about exploring the world around us with our five senses and the world within us through introspection. Through these we can construct both an empirically-testable understanding of the external world and a semi-empirical, semi-testable understanding of the internal world.

Next, there’s Relationship with Mythology. This is about identifying with the mythological, becoming intimately familiar with it, and incorporating it into our life development.

Third, there’s Responsible Action. This is about seeing what problems we as humans have caused in the world and taking the responsibility to fix those problems, while at the same time being conscious enough to prevent further problems.

Finally, there’s A Sense of Wonder. This is about never letting the majesty of nature cease to fascinate and inspire us.

Okay, that’s simple enough, but do these tell us why we’re dedicating ourselves to these principles?

I think that before we look at what we’re getting out of HP, we need to look at what we’re putting into it. That means understanding what types of actions we are taking when we put HP into practice in our lives.

Being and doing

Looking back to the Fourfold Path, we can see that there are two basic types of practices in Humanistic Paganism.

The first is simply exploring. Exploratory practices take an absolute focus on the moment, a forgetting of goals and drives, a simple act of being. These types of practices are about engaging the senses and exploring them to the fullest. They are about experiencing for the sake of the experience, for reveling in the substance of it, and for celebrating the fact that something simply is. For an excellent example of this type of practice, check out Thomas Schenk’s article on bicycle meditation.

The second type of practice is making a difference. This is the practice described by Responsible Action, and it is primarily about making consequential decisions. To fully take part in this element of the Fourfold Path, it isn’t enough to see an issue and do something insignificant about it; instead, we are called to truly make a difference in the world with our actions, to leave this earth and our fellow human beings significantly better than we found them. Here we are presented with the premise of “humans cause most of their own problems,” and we are required to respond to that premise with our very lives, an aspect of Humanistic Paganism I’d like to see talked about more often.

Of consequence and wonder

Now, with those two types of practices in our grasp, can we finally answer the question, “Why Humanistic Paganism?” I believe we can, and I believe that the answer lies in the two different senses of meaning you get from the practices of HP.

The first type of meaningful experience you can get out of Humanistic Paganism is the real sense of consequence from making a difference in the world. Seeing tangible consequences manifest as a result of our own personal decisions is an extremely fulfilling and meaningful experience, and it is why humanism in general has been able to become such a widespread movement. Even more, by taking responsible action, we create a story with our lives and forge new mythology with our very existence.

The second type of meaning we can get out of Humanistic Paganism is what is described in the final element of the Fourfold Path: a sense of wonder. This sense of wonder is a direct result of exploratory practices, and it only comes about by focusing solely on an experience for the sake of the experience. Through exploration, we can truly feel the wonder of the world; in it, instead of just thinking, we know the universe to be wonderful. The mystery of living consumes our senses, and our life is filled to the brim with meaning, even if but for a moment.

Putting it into practice

The thing about these two types of action and meaning is that they are mutually exclusive: you cannot fully commit to exploration and in the same instance fully commit to making consequential decisions.(1) Because of this, you have three options in putting Humanistic Paganism into practice.

First, you may want to emphasize the consequential aspects of it, and focus on taking responsible action in the world, with exploration playing a supporting role. Through this, you still have more of a sense of wonder than through adhering only to consequential practices, and you can understand your life story in a more poetic form than the consequential by itself would normally allow.

On the other hand, you may want to emphasize the exploratory aspects of Humanistic Paganism. In this approach, making consequential decisions takes a backseat to simply experiencing life. If a problem comes up that needs addressing, you’ll address it, but here you don’t go out of your way to take responsible action. The sense of wonder is placed first and foremost.

Finally, you may want to fully balance exploration with making a difference. And this is the tricky one. Because exploring and making a difference are fundamentally different types of actions, it is extremely easy to get lost in one and forget about the other. That means that if you really want to balance the two types of actions, you need to develop some practices in order to do so.

And that’s what I want to discuss here. So let’s jump into it.

First how are you practicing HP? Are you emphasizing one type of practice over the other, or are you balancing them?

And second, if you are balancing the two, what are some concrete examples of how you’re doing that?

—————-

(1) For an introduction into why I make this claim, check out Daniel Kahneman’s TED talk on the riddle of memory vs. experience, or look into Ian McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary.

The author

C Luke Mula

C Luke Mula is the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Endlessly fascinated by meaningful experiences of all stripes, he is constantly experimenting with ways to make life more meaningful, a process he calls “faith design.” He co-directs The Way to Actuality, a website founded to foster the discussion and discovery of Purpose wherever it can be found, regardless of religious or secular context.

Upcoming work

This Sunday

C Luke Mula

It’s back to basics as C Luke Mula takes a fresh look at the Fourfold Path.  With insightful critique, he advances our understanding of the fundamentals.

Of consequence and wonder: Exploring the “why’s” of Humanistic Paganism, by C Luke Mula

Appearing Sunday, October 16th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W. G. Collingwood

Join us for the next council on matters vital to the future of Humanistic Paganism.

The conversation continues this Thursday, October 20th, on Humanistic Paganism.

Next Sunday

Thomas Schek 

Thomas shares a personal story of private struggle, with a journey into the world of dreams.

Encounters with the Goddess? by Thomas Schenk

Appearing Sunday, October 22nd, on Humanistic Paganism.

Recent Work

Symbols in the Sky, by B. T. Newberg

Science vs. religion: Mythology is poetry, not prose, by Heather Wiech

Bicycle meditation, by Thomas Schenk

What does naturalism mean to you?

Thing on Thursday #3

Akk!  Sheesh.  This Thing on Thursday has become a Thing on Friday.  Sorry for the delay.  Work obligations got the better of me.  But better late than never.  Join us for this week’s belated council.

One of the top values from last week’s poll was naturalism.  But naturalism has many meanings. Wikipedia lists some fourteen disambiguations for the word.

Of those fourteen, two of the most relevant are quoted as follows:

  • Methodological naturalism, naturalism that holds that science is to be done without reference to supernatural causes; also refers to a methodological assumption in the philosophy of religion that observable events are fully explainable by natural causes without reference to the supernatural
  • Metaphysical naturalism, a form of naturalism that holds that the cosmos consists only of objects studied by the natural sciences, and does not include any immaterial or intentional realities

Which one do you mean when you say naturalism is important for us?  Do you mean it’s important as a method of discovering our world?  Or do you mean that nothing else exists besides observable nature?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

About Thing on Thursday

Althing in Session, by W.G. CollingwoodThis post is part of a series of councils on matters vital to the future.  The name represents both the generic term for, you know, a thingie, as well as the Old Norse term for a council of elders: a Thing.

Each week until the Winter Solstice, Thing on Thursday will explore a new controversy.  Participation is open to all – the more minds that come together, the better.  Those who have been vocal in the comments are as welcome as those quiet-but-devoted readers who have yet to venture a word.  We value all constructive opinions.

There are only a few rules:

  • be constructive – this is a council, so treat it as such
  • be respectful – no rants or flames

Comments will be taken into consideration as we determine the new direction of Humanistic Paganism.  This will also greatly shape the vision that unfolds in our upcoming ebook Our Ancient Future: Visions of Humanistic Paganism.

So please make your voice heard in the comments!

Symbols in the sky

Red-tailed hawk duotone

Omens don’t tell the future, they tell the present.

image enhanced from original, and posted under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license

– by B. T. Newberg

I double-checked my suit pocket: yes, the rings were there.  Everything was ready.  I just had to take the trash out before we left to join our lives together.

Checklists ran through my head as I walked into the alley.

“Woah!”

Something swooped down onto the lamppost, and it wasn’t the typical crow or pigeon.

The speckled breast, the hook-shaped beak, the grasping talons…

“A hawk!”

It wasn’t an everyday sight in the heart of Minneapolis.

The beast shifted its weight from foot to foot, shuffled its feathers.

I noted that hawks were closely related to kites, a bird sacred to my patron goddess, Isis.  There were few kites in Minnesota, so if Isis wanted to send a message she might have to use a hawk.

That brought a self-ridiculing smile across my face, as I teased myself for wanting the sight to have special significance.  As if it were meant just for me.

Then another burst of feathers swooped down to land beside the other.

Wow, two hawks.  You never see that.  They must be mates.

The symbolism was too perfect: on the morning of my wedding day, a bird like the one sacred to my goddess is joined by its mate.  What are the odds!

Omens above

The idea that bird sightings can have special significance belongs to an ancient tradition called ornithomancy, a kind of omenry.  It was one of the great divinatory arts of the ancient world.  Meaning was seen in the flight of birds.

In Homer’s Iliad, for example, there is a famous dispute over a bird sighting.  Just as the Trojan soldiers attempt to overtake their enemies’ rampart, an eagle appears grasping a serpent in its talons.  The serpent bites the eagle, causing it to let go and fly off without food for its young.  The Trojan Polydamas thinks this means they would not take the rampart, but Hector dismisses it, saying:

“Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen!”  (Iliad, Book XII, 281, trans. Robert Fagles)

So who is right?  Polydamas believes there is a special message intended just for them, a message which predicts the future.  Hector shrugs it off, confident in our human ability to create our own future.

Polydamas’ view was common in ancient Greece.  Henri Frankfort believes this was how the natural world appeared to ancient humanity.  During the myth-making, or mythopoeic stage of our history, prior to the emergence of philosophy and modern science, significance filled every event.  It was as if nature was talking to directly to us.

Today we see things differently.  Natural events are impersonal.  There is no special message for us.  The bird may have some intention, like finding its next meal, but nothing that concerns us.

So who did I agree with on that morning of my wedding, Polydamas or Hector?

It could have been anyone witnessing those two hawks on the lamppost, or no one at all.  It just happened to be me.  With Hector, I might put confidence only in myself.

Yet it was the morning of my wedding.  The timing was just too perfect.  There was an urge in me to find personal meaning in it, like Polydamas.  Was that crazy?

The sky inside

What did the Trojans see when they caught sight of the eagle?  What did I see when I noticed the two hawks?

When we looked up at those birds, we were actually looking down into ourselves.  What we saw was the sky inside.

There is a part of ourselves beyond the reach of conscious direction.  It’s the part that throws up dream images in the night, and pops ideas into your head during the day.  How did you come up with that clever joke you just cracked?  What, you don’t know, it just came to you?  That’s because a great deal of mental functioning is unconscious.

One of the most significant functions of the unconscious mind is to find meaning.  If you had to consciously decode the meaning of every word in your best friend’s story, it would take all day.  The unconscious does it for you in a flash.  So that deeper part of the mind is quite capable of constructing a meaningful message out of sensory input.

Even the input of two birds on a lamppost?  Was my unconscious meaning-maker on overdrive that morning, or what?

I don’t think so.  Rather, it was sending a message to me – that is, to my conscious mind.

Now, my unconscious didn’t arrange for the two hawks to land there.  But it did arrange for me to notice them.

So it was a message after all.  And what it was saying was, “Hey – wake up!  Get your head in the right mindset.  Today is meaningful to us.”

I was about to get married, and where was my mind?  Going over checklists.  Is that what I wanted going through my head as I said I do?  I needed to slow down, take a breath, and recognize the meaning of the day.

The best way to get me to do that, apparently, was to project meaning onto the birds.  What would otherwise have been a curiosity became a symbol.

In the same way, the Trojans received messages from their unconscious minds.  In the heat of battle, with their lives at stake, they were desperate for meaning.  The more skiddish among them, like Polydamas, saw their own fear projected.  Hector, on the other hand, felt no meaning projected onto the bird sighting.  Fear was not what his unconscious needed him to see in that moment.  Instead, it showed him just what he needed: confidence in his own two hands.  Empowered thus, he led the charge that smashed the rampart to pieces.

What my unconscious showed me was also just what I needed.  The day was sacred, so I was shown a sacred symbol.

In a flash, my mind went from chatter to silence.   And a sense of the sacred filled my being.

I was getting married.

Symbols in the sky

There are messages for us in the sky.  We see the symbol up there, but it comes from in here.

Bird omenry can be a powerful way to develop a sense of awe and wonder at our world.  We need only remember where the message is really coming from: the deepest part of ourselves.  Whenever we look outside for meaning, we also look within.

The unconscious is greater than us, beyond our conscious control and perception.  It is at our very root, and its messages show us who we are.  It is where the gods live.

Polydamas thought the gods sent the eagle to them, but perhaps the gods sent them to the eagle.  They made them notice what was already there, and project meaning onto it.  Each saw what was inside them, whether fear or confidence.

Polydamas’ mistake was not so much that he saw meaning in a natural event, but that he thought it could control his destiny.  Hector avoided that, knowing full well fate was in his hands.

A sign from within cannot predict the future, but it can influence it through our own actions.  If I had not seen those two hawks, perhaps my mind would have been less open, and the ceremony might have gone differently.  If Hector had not felt confidence in his bones, instead of fear in the sky, the battle may have been lost.

To create the best outcome, both of us needed to see what was inside us at that very moment.

Divination doesn’t tell the future, it tells the present.

And in so doing, it gives you a chance to change the future with your own two hands.

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