Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Religion as Selective: Relegere vs Religare

For many years we taught, as do many contemporary scholars, that the word religion derives from the Latin religare, a word derived from the root LIG- (through ligus, "binding".) Religion then, was a binding back with the divine.

We had known that there was a connection with words like neglect (or rather with its opposite) but perhaps the concept of binding back again was particularly attractive to those of us who have had the infamous experience of "coming home." And so we tended to overlook another possible derivation of the world "religion":  the one that is linked to the root LEG- or sometimes LIG- (through the Greek lego, logos, logas.)

The sense of these words is not only to gather together, to care for or to set things in order, but also to speak and to repeat. Certainly, Cicero emphasizes both the concept of careful selection or gathering, and that of retracing one's steps or re-reading something of value:
For religion has been distinguished from superstition not only by philosophers but by our ancestors. Persons who spent whole days in prayer and sacrifice to ensure that their children should out-live them were termed "superstitious" (from supersies, a survivor), and the word later acquired a wider application. Those on the other hand who carefully reviewed and so to speak retraced all the lore of ritual were called "religious" from relegere (to retrace or re-read), like "elegant" from eligere (to select), "diligent" from diligere (to care for), "intelligent" from intellegere (to understand); for all these words contain the same sense of "picking out" (legere) that is present in "religious." Hence "superstitious" and "religious" came to be terms of censure and approval respectively.

~ Cicero, De natura deorum (45 B.C.E.)

The quote is from Liber Secundus, which represents the view of the Stoics. The complete text (all three books) is embedded below, thanks to the folks at the Internet Archive.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Seeing the Shades of Grey

Ne nuis pas à ton voisin.
Ceci bien compris, fais ce qu'il te plaît.
~ Les Aventures du Roi Pausole, Pierre Louÿs

As I prepare for a discussion on pagan ethics, I am searching out relevant hypertexts that might add to the materials already in my possession. One such text that drew my attention was "Harm None" by Marta Garcia at Old Ways.

Discussions of the Rede are plentiful, whether online or at events in the community. What I really appreciated about this one is that it talks about the Wiccan Rede as an ethical compass for all actions, and not just those of a magical or spiritual nature.

I was troubled, however, by the example used to illustrate the mundane application of the Rede. It is unquestionably a realistic situation, and one that could be faced by any of us in some form or another. What bothers me is that the author only saw two possible actions, and rather than looking for the best possible outcome in a sensitive situation, she found herself instead looking at choosing what she felt was the lesser of two evils:
Recently, I had to decide whether or not to report a co-worker to the higher ups. This person had, in my view, been verbally abusive to a child in a pediatric unit of a nursing home. I had to decide what the lesser of two evils would be:
  1. The co-worker losing their job in these hard economic times,
  2. Allowing for the children we work with to continue to be verbally abused
Did I want this person to lose their job, knowing full well that the economy is bad and jobs are hard to find? No. But if I chose not to report this incident so that the co-worker could keep their job, then I would be allowing their behavior to continue within the unit. Did I want such behavior to continue amongst children? No. Part of my and everyone’s job within the unit is to protect the children. I chose to report what I had witnessed.
One of the recurring themes in the neo-pagan community is that of a religion without converts, because we are simply "coming home" to a place we never really left. In reality, though, becoming pagan is a journey that sometimes involves learning to leave behind certain preconceived notions in order to be able to function with the tools and the current we have chosen as our own.

Many pagans who were raised in North America continue to cling to a dualistic worldview, long after they have divested themselves of most other aspects of western morality. This mentality emphasizes polarities such as good vs evil, wrong vs right, us vs them. It tends to limit our ability to conceive of possible actions or solutions to a problem. It can also create an adversarial atmosphere, in which the assumption is that only one person's interests can be served in any given situation.

The ultimate consequence of this way of thinking can often be that we seek to determine who will triumph, and we rush to align ourselves with that party in order to avoid injury to ourselves. To some extent that's just human nature, but let's not try to pass it off as ethical behaviour.

It's self-preservation, not morality.

"But if I chose not to report this incident so that the co-worker could keep their job, then I would be allowing their behavior to continue within the unit." What's happening here? Is the author taking responsibility for her own actions? She wasn't the person who acted inappropriately. Why is she responsible for what happened?

The fact is, she's not. She may be seizing control of the situation, but what she is doing isn't taking responsibility. Taking responsibility when we see a wrong doesn't just mean preventing it from recurring; it also means taking steps to address the damage already done. By reporting the colleague, she skips right over the responsibility part and goes straight to seeing that the colleague is punished. I see very little difference between that and an eight-year-old tattling on her sister.

"This person had, in my view, been verbally abusive to a child in a pediatric unit of a nursing home." So we're not talking about a legal definition of abuse, or even a policy specific to that particular workplace. We're talking about a personal opinion of what is right and what is wrong.

"Part of my . . . job within the unit is to protect the children." How does she do that? Apparently not by intervening at the moment of the incident in order to minimize the negative impact of what was said, nor by informing the parents - who had every right to know if there was a genuine incidence of abuse. She does not question her colleague, call her on her behaviour, or attempt to ascertain if the incident was provoked by some sort of distress for which she could offer support or assistance. The only two possibilities she sees are to ignore the behaviour or to report it.

I see no morality there, no compassion for either child or colleague. Just a need to side with the right. "Management investigated the situation," she tells us. Her employers, "chose not to allow this person back in the building and the co-worker proceeded to retire." Again in this statement, I see no positive actions taken on behalf of the child or his family. I see no attempts on behalf of the management to address what had sparked the incident, in hopes of preventing it with future employees. It sounds like they did the same thing the author chose to do: they covered their own backside.

 So what makes it ethical to side with the employer over the colleague? What about this situation benefits any child? This is not a question of morality. It's a question of minimizing liability and doing damage control. It's an ethical farce.

Since many neo-pagans also embrace the concept of karma, let's think what kind of karma a choice like the one above will bring. With one staff member terminated for abuse, the rest will need to be extra vigilant. Everyone will dread the moment when they lose their temper with a child. They will need to beware of someone walking by a room and taking a snippet of conversation so completely out of context as to make it appear they too are being abusive. Anyone could be the next to suffer the fate of their "retired" colleague.

And will those children have gained anything at all from the loss of staff members who, in these difficult economic times, the nursing home may simply choose not to replace? What will the fate of the children be when staff numbers are cut, and those who are left to care for them must do even more with less time. Rather than taking a high moral ground, our author could easily be creating the perfect conditions for even more abuse to take place.

Yes, there is an element of the extreme to the scenario I offer. But I am addressing an audience whose members by and large accept the existence of such things like magic and the Butterfly Effect. This is but one possible future, given the circumstances described by our author.

The problem with trying to take on responsibility for the actions of another is, we simply don't know where that choice will lead. In the great majority of cases it is far better to choose to act morally ourselves, and to encourage those around us to do the same, than to take on the actions of another.

As pagans we like to pride ourselves on how tolerant and accepting we are, how we can celebrate a rainbow of diverse lifestyles and paths without passing judgement. So why cling to a black and white morality?

Learn to see the shades of grey. Learn to see all the hues of the moral rainbow, and all the options they represent. Embrace the infinite realities that are open to you.

Think outside the box.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Prayer for Isaac Bonewits

We've been very private about our practice in the last decade or so, which has meant I'm pretty much out of the loop when it comes to new publications and authors, news of well known pagans, and so on. I did happen to go to Isaac & Phaedra Bonewits' web site a while ago, so I knew he had been ill with cancer. I discovered today that Isaac is nearing the end of this life.

I won't make any pretense of saying I know Isaac and his family. I met him once at a fest, many years ago. I took a workshop with Deborah Lipp, the mother of his son. I read his book Real Magic, as so many of us have.

So no special connection here, and no insider knowledge on what is going on with Isaac. I read the news on Isaac & Phaedra's Facebook page. His siblings are apparently travelling to be with him at the end. I pray they will reach him in time to say the kind of goodbyes they want to say.

My heart goes out to all those who are touched by Isaac's battle with cancer, and I pray his transition from this life to the next one will be a peaceful one.

Magic or Lies?

Magick is the art of causing changes in consciousness in conformity with the Will.
- Dion Fortune
My dentist has a little ritual she does with the kids she sees. The first time my daughter had to have a filling done, the dentist told her she would use some "Harry Potter magic" to help make the cavity go away. While she applied the topical gel and then injected the Novacaine, she and her assistant chanted an incantation. In order for the magic to work, my daughter had to close her eyes and to repeat the chant in her head.

We were at the dentist again last week, and since my daughter is getting old enough to begin to doubt in things like Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and Harry Potter magic that can take away a cavity, the dentist asked me if she should still use her magic spell. I told her she should. I figured if it still worked for my daughter, why not? If it didn't work, no harm done.

Odin the Wanderer (Georg von Rosen, 1886)
Odin is linked by some people
to the archetype of Santa Claus
"It's a lie," said the dentist."But it's only a little one."

I understood what she meant, but I don't happen to agree. I can see no lie in what she does for the children she treats.

My dentist was trained at Université de Montréal, where the school of dentistry is known for its pioneering in teaching prospective dentists to use psychology to help patients relax and to ease any discomfort they may have. When I sit in that same chair, the things she says to me are not so very different from what she tells my kids. She reminds me to sit comfortably, to close my eyes, and to focus on breathing through my nose.

OK, so there's no incantation and she makes no attempt to hide the syringe of Novacaine from me. But other than that, she follows pretty much the same procedure for children and for adults. She speaks in a soft, relaxing voice. At the beginning of every visit she takes time for small talk about the weather, family, common interests - anything at all really, just so long as we chat and have time to ease into our hour together. I've had very similar conversations before beginning a circle. It's all part of establishing the right atmosphere, and entering the right frame of mind for the work ahead.

My daughter later confided in me that she knew about the needle, but she didn't object to the chanting of the spell. She explained that the first time she hadn't said the words in her head when she was told to. "Alakazam, boom, boom!" may seem a little outlandish to her these days, but it does work. She felt pain when she didn't repeat the incantation to herself, so the dentist gave her a moment to relax and reminded her to say the words silently in her head the next time. And of course, she had no pain that time!

We discussed this on the way home. I asked her if she thought the magic words helped, and she thought they had. So I told her she should remember that for the next time.

It's perfectly fine for her to question and to test. The experience at the dentist's office taught her that, while she may have known about the needle the dentist was trying to hide, there was still merit in the rest of the ritual. It relieved her pain, even though she knew what she (and the dentist!) thought was the secret.

Sometimes in life, the things we think are a big deal really aren't. And things we think are trivial, turn out to be much more useful than we could have expected.