Ask Me Anything, Religion

What do you think about the teachings of Jesus?

Leah asked:

Simply curious: what do you think about the teachings of Jesus?

This is where I’m supposed to say that even though I don’t believe he’s the son of a god, I do think he was highly enlightened and was one of the great spiritual teachers of history.

But that’s not exactly what I think.

First off, I should disclose my bias. For a long time I felt that Christianity as a whole was fundamentally flawed, and that Jesus’ teachings did more harm than good. I no longer believe that, and I’ve tried to distance myself from that former hostility toward Christianity.

However, for many people the damage that’s been done by Christianity as an institution outweighs the good that Jesus did. Obviously, there’s a difference between Jesus Christ the individual and Christianity the religion, and he didn’t directly found any of the churches. Even so, I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to be gun shy. When a person creates a movement that goes on to do awful things they have to bear at least part of the responsibility. And if you’ve been on the receiving end of a church’s bile and rhetoric, it’s not much consolation to know that their founding father was a swell guy.

So, to anyone out there who has a very bad taste in their mouth about Christianity: I understand.

I personally however have warmed up on Jesus. I’m intrigued by alternative readings of his teachings. For example, in this amazing podcast theologian Don Cupitt argues that Jesus was a radical humanist. He bases his argument entirely on Jesus’ actual sayings in the Gospels rather than any of the rest of the Bible. If that’s accurate then Jesus and I agree on a lot of things.

Rarely, I’ve also seen people truly live by his example and it really is a marvelous thing to behold.

(For a delightful, irreverent book that combines both of these things—Jesus as radical humanist and people daring to actually follow his example—I highly recommend A Very Minor Prophet by James Bernard Frost.)

A Very Minor Prophet by James Bernard Frost

Anyway, on to my thoughts.

I’m a polytheist. That means I believe the divine appears with many faces, and that there’s value in relating to them as a plurality. Likewise, as a polytheist I believe we need a plurality of beliefs and doctrines as well. We need them because no one religious structure will reach everybody. So I’m in favor of embracing multiple gods, multiple doctrines and multiple religious organizations—as all polytheists should be.

In my view then there’s no reason to exclude Jesus. I realize that many polytheists will hiss to hear me say that—monotheism! forced conversion! universalism! But as a committed polytheist, if the teachings of Jesus speak to people, I don’t see why they aren’t just as good an addition to the pantheon as the teachings of Apollo or Dionysus.

And his teachings are valuable. As far as I can tell, Jesus’ main message promotes a sort of deep and committed selflessness, not just love and forgiveness but a commitment to love and forgiveness so deep that they can stop the cycle of violence and revenge. Jesus, like Socrates, challenged an eye-for-eye moral system and taught people to put each other first, to be the first ones to put down their swords.

That teaching was, I think, fairly novel in ancient Europe. (Socrates taught something similar, and was also killed for it.) I admit I get rankled when people pretend that Classical religion was all brutish and awful before Christianity. The ancient Greeks and Romans had a concept of charity, they valued generosity and kindness, and they had a beautiful moral system based on striving for virtue. But did they have a sense of selfless mercy, or forgiveness for the sake of peace? If they did, it wasn’t prominent.

Other polytheist systems, like Hinduism, already have a concept of this kind of compassion; no outside messiah is needed. (Jesus is neatly folded into Hinduism as an avatar of Vishnu, the god who incarnates as a mortal to guide and help humankind.) But I don’t see that kind of selfless compassion in Classical ethics—nor Celtic or Germanic ethics. Compassion and kindness were reserved for one’s friends or countrymen, never for one’s enemies.

A lot of other ideas got mixed into early Christianity—Heaven and Hell, meekness, the resurrection—that are terrible whether they came from Jesus or not. But to the extent that we can separate Jesus’ teaching of compassion from all the rest of it, I believe he made a much needed addition to Western religion.

Happy Christmas, all of you who celebrate it. I hope it’s a wonderful, magical day and a time for reflection on how to be the people we imagine we are.

Tomorrow, if you can pull yourself away from the festivities, I’ll be unveiling a major new development in my quest for the heroic life. I hope you’ll take the time to read it and offer critique.

Happy holidays!

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Religion, Spotlight

Polytheism Ebook Fail

Michel Hill's Hill Evidencism Polytheism Book

So, I recently received an (unsolicited) free copy of an ebook on polytheism. The email was signed by author Michael Hill, but the email address looked a lot like spam. So instead of clicking the attachment I decided to do some googling.

I found out that there really is a polytheism treatise by Michael Hill, and it looks like a real hoot. According to the abstract:

“Numerous and unrelated pieces of physical evidence currently exist that proves the existence of the Gods.”

Unlikely.

“A few examples of physical evidence, historical events like the Black Death, and some thoroughly-explained logic were combined to tell a complete story that reveals the answers to most religious questions.”

In case I was still on the fence, this pretty much confirmed that the book is not worth reading. Helpfully, the rest of the abstract brags that it’s a short, easy read. In fact, it says that of the 44 pages in the book (so… paper?), more than half is bibliography. In other words, Michael Hill believes he has polished off 6,000 years of theological debate in a handy 20 pages.

The best part is that Hill seems to be trying to found a whole new religion, “Hill Evidencism.” I finally gave in to curiosity and downloaded the complimentary pdf. Here’s a an actual quote:

“The main reason why lightning is physical divine evidence is because lightning frequently introduces humans to fire… After being introduced to fire, humans learned how to use fire.”

It’s hard to argue with reasoning like that… but not for the reasons Hill would like to think.

All of this reminds me that, although polytheism is a beautiful concept, there’s not a whole lot of respectable work being written about it these days.

I wonder if I should take the time to write a polytheism book of my own?

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Religion

Doing My Job as a Priest

Image by Justin Ornellas

A friend of mine has been facing repeated heartbreak as he tries to get a fledgling relationship off the ground. We talked recently and he asked me, “Why do I have to keep paying in tears and pain for the sin of desiring romantic human companionship? Sometimes I feel cursed.”

This led to a conversation:

Me: Do you ever talk to your spirits?

Friend: Other than an aimless “why?” screamed towards the Heavens, no.

Me: Might not be a bad idea.

Friend: Why? You think I’m cursed?

Me: No, I don’t. If I’d felt that I would have done a ceremony for you already.

Friend: I don’t think I’m cursed either.
Just unhinged.

Me: The spirit world has a way of unblocking things that are blocked and pointing out things that aren’t easy to see. That’s the reason I suggest it. Gently, of course, with with total respect for your own freedom to do as you see fit spiritually :)

Friend: How should I begin? I need answers with this thing. I’m losing it.

Me: I would begin by just going to a quiet place and talking to them. Bring a gift, even if it’s just water or a few coins. Ask them for their guidance and listen with an open heart.

They may ask you to make changes or to do something. If you feel comfortable with what they say then do it. If you make the changes they tell you to make you will see the ripples of it across your life.

That is my experience.

Friend: Did you sense something? Hear something? Like how did you recognize the guidance?

Me: I think it’s different for every person. I wouldn’t expect a voice to whisper in your ear (might be a bad sign if it does). I feel it in my heart.

Friend: LOL
I’m going to the Beach this afternoon. What kind of offering do you think I should take? Pennies to throw into the water? I’m honestly clueless about these things.

Me: I think pennies are a great idea.

I may no longer run a temple, lead many public ceremonies, or even have a clear sense of whether the gods exist outside our heads… but I’d like to think I’m still doing my job as a priest for those who need it.

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Personal Development, Philosophy, Religion, The Great Adventure

A Report from the Journey to Meet the Gods

Aztec gods. Art by Mostro.

In 2012 I began a journey across the Americas on a bicycle. I had several reasons for going: to become a writer, to fulfill a lifelong dream, and to learn something about heroism and adventure. But if I had one goal, one purpose for the whole trip, it was to meet the gods.

I’ve now covered 2,000 miles, and in that time I’ve said almost nothing about meeting the gods. That’s not because I’ve given up, it’s because the gods are elusive. I’ve sought them for two years and for two years I haven’t met them—not even a glimpse.

But I believe I have learned a few basic truths about what we call gods, and today I’m breaking my silence.

What Does It Mean to Meet the Gods?

When I began training in Vodou, one of the many phenomena I got to witness was possession. Possession is the central event of most Vodou ceremonies, as common in the temple as taking Communion is at church. Possession is a chance for the lwa, the spirits, to speak and move through a person and deliver messages to the people at the ceremony. It’s also a chance for all of us there to have direct contact with the divine. While the person being possessed may seem to be at the center of attention, they rarely remember anything that happens. They lose themselves in the moment and allow the spirit to come through for our sake. It is the community, not the person possessed, who benefits.

These possessions are poignant. Before I left New Orleans to bicycle to Texas, we held a ceremony for Papa Legba. Papa Legba is an old man who sits at the crossroads between the worlds. He walks slowly, with a limp, because he has supported his human children for so long. Now he leans on a cane, but he is still strong, and he will never leave our side.

During the ceremony Papa possessed one of our priests. He—Papa Legba, not the priest, who was for all intents and purposes checked out—lit a cigar. Cigars are common offerings in Vodou. Papa sat on his chair, like he does, and puffed. We kept dancing (Vodou ceremonies are mostly dancing, which makes them way more fun than other kinds of services). But as I passed by him, Papa stopped me.

He looked in my eyes, took a long draw of the cigar, and blew smoke on both my feet. Before I could thank him or ask him any questions, he gave me a firm push back toward the dancing. Papa doesn’t coddle.

Art by Brocoli.

Despite the gruffness of the act, there was no way I could miss its significance. I was about to set off for a 700-mile ride, not knowing where I would sleep or exactly what route I would take. And on practically the eve of my departure, this spirit—who had never talked to me at any other ceremony for him—blessed both my feet. The feet that would power me the whole way.

Or at least, that’s one way to read it. I think this is where many people would declare they have spoken to the divine, or that the divine spoke to them. Certainly I was overcome with a sense of awe. Being in the presence of the possessed, and having them single you out and touch you, is intense. In that moment, the priest looked and acted nothing like the man I know. He was Papa Legba.

But this is where I ask questions. It wasn’t the first spiritual experience I’ve had. When I pray, I get sense of a presence, a sense of guidance. That is “meeting the gods,” but I never took it on faith. And when I go into trance during meditation, I have vivid inner experiences, visions if you wish to call them that. I meet and talk to the gods there too, but I never took it on faith. Why would possession be any different?

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting fraud. There is no denying that a tremendous psychological transformation overcomes those who are possessed. I believe fully that this priest was unconscious of what was happening, that his actions as Legba were out of his conscious control. But did a divine agent move through him? Or did this personality come entirely from his own unconscious mind?

Some people might answer, what does it matter? But let’s not let it go so easily. This is a really important difference, one that has a huge impact on what religion means: if a supernatural, independent being named Papa Legba moved through my friend, that means we are not alone; it means there is far more to the universe than we can see empirically; it means that maybe prayers can be answered, maybe faith has a power greater than the atom bomb.

And if Papa Legba is simply a state of mind, not a spirit at all, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that religion is pointless, or that Vodou is canceled. The experiences are just as vivid. Even if I knew for a fact that it was all in our heads, I would still want to dance at the temple and Papa’s blessing would still make me soar. But some things would be different: I wouldn’t expect prayers to be answered. The human brain can’t stop hurricanes, or heal cancer with a word, or protect Rogue Priests on bicycles from speeding trucks. That’s the provenance of spirit beings. So if those beings don’t exist, it makes a real difference.

You’re starting to see the problem. I can’t just declare I’ve met the gods whenever I get a vivid spiritual experience. I haven’t seen anything yet that couldn’t be explained by psychology alone. So I can’t be sure whether the gods are spirits, or in our heads.

Past Mistakes

I wasn’t always so cautious. I used to be really sure the gods are real. I was “sure” because I had felt them myself. I felt their presence when I made offerings.

But that sureness was a mistake.

More and more, I’ve come to feel that the greatest sin a religious person can commit is to act as if they know the answer. We don’t know anything about the gods. All we have are experiences—highly subjective personal experiences. A lot of those experiences don’t even look alike. So when no two religious experiences are the same, what does that mean? It could mean the divine is a big ol’ mess of noodles. Or it could just mean we’re all imagining things.

There are some safe conclusions you can draw from a spiritual experience. You can say, “I know spirituality is meaningful to me.” Or you can say, “I know that I have powerful experiences, and I know I’d like to keep having them.” That’s fair. But I used to go a step further. I used to say I knew the gods were real. And I was wrong. No one knows that.

This realization isn’t something that set in during my Journey. To the contrary, I started to realize this before my Journey even began. In fact, if I hadn’t admitted this uncertainty to myself there might be no Journey at all—I’d still be sitting at home saying I knew everything, instead of out in the world looking for answers.

So when I started out I had no road map. I really have no idea what it would mean to “meet the gods” (that’s part of why I rarely bring it up; how would I explain it to anyone?). I suppose it would be a good sign if I saw something that non-gods can’t do, like if that possessed priest had lifted right up in the air and levitated. But really, if I saw something like that I’d just worry I was schizophrenic.

So maybe I hope I’ll find the entrance to the other world, or that I’ll get some cosmic revelation. Or maybe I just hope to get some peace on the issue, to decide once and for all that the gods aren’t real or that it’s something we can’t know. But how heroic is that?

I plan to keep questioning and questioning, and experimenting and experimenting, until I have some kind of breakthrough. I can’t imagine what it would take, but one way or another I want an answer: are there gods or aren’t there? And if there are, I’m going to need to see them.

Goddess of the moon & queen of the stars. Art by Mostro.

Revelations

I have had some revelations along the way. While I haven’t met the gods, I’ve learned a few things that seem important to tracking them down.

1. Acceptance

The first thing I learned is that even the religions you don’t like have an awful lot of good people in them. We can all find a religion we just don’t like. Even if you’re the most open minded person in the world you’ve probably made fun of some fringe sect or another. But for me, for a long time it was Christianity.

Many polytheists have hard feelings toward Christianity, and I won’t go into more detail than that. Suffice it to say that in the past my feelings toward Christianity have ranged from uncomfortable to hostile. I was aware that lots of individual Christians are good people, but that didn’t offset the problems I had with Christianity as an institution.

A few things changed this. For one, a brave friend explicitly told me I was bigoted. It didn’t even sting when she told me that, because the second the word left her mouth I felt it. She was right. The breath kind of went out of me, and I stopped whatever I was saying, and had to reflect on it for a long time.

Then, as I bicycled down the Mississippi, I had some extraordinarily warm experiences with Christians. It’s hard to be so judgmental when you’re personally on the receiving end of the generosity, kindness and love that Christians are taught to practice. Not all my interactions were this warm—sometimes the kindness came with a conversion hook, which ruined it, and once I was even turned away by a monastery. But in the experiences that were positive, I could see that Christianity done properly really does improve the world.

(I continue to have reservations because even the most warm, friendly Christian churches support missionary work that undermines other beautiful religions. The difference is that I’m better able to separate these two issues.)

And the last thing that helped open me up was Vodou. Despite many claims to the contrary, Vodou is not a branch of Catholicism. But the first year I formally practiced Vodou was also the last year I could say, “I don’t celebrate Christmas.” Christmas, Easter, and other bits of Christianity have been absorbed into Vodou and they’re there to stay. They may be primarily window dressings on a pre-Christian faith, but those dressings have forced me to confront my relationship with Christianity. Vodou, that ever-changing gumbo of a religion, has made me accept new flavors I never meant to try.

All of this has informed my view of polytheism generally. To many practitioners, polytheism just means “believing in many gods.” But it’s more than that. Historically, polytheism not only had multiple gods; it had multiple doctrines and clergy and belief systems. It is a truly pluralistic system in which there is a belief for everyone—in which you decide for yourself what you believe. That is polytheism’s great strength.

In such a view, there is no room for bigotry. Yes, we should discourage aggressive proselytizing, and we should fight forced conversion wherever it’s practiced. But when we embark ourselves on polytheism, we cannot close the door on anyone.

2. Amazing Things are Possible

My sister is also on a spiritual journey. In her case, she decided to commit herself to a Buddhist monastery. She has been there for five years now and, other than a few weeks one summer, we haven’t seen her since she went in.

I respect my sister’s path, but mine has always been in-the-world. I’m not interested in a spirituality that locks me away, that separates me from the love and the shit and the joys and the pain. So although I perform intensive spiritual practices, I balance them against a career, an art form, drinking, napping, and dating.

It’s not always easy. I think most of us are in a constant crisis of self worth. Why aren’t I a famous writer yet? What did I do wrong in that relationship? What if I lose all my clients? Is this journey a bad idea? Will I get hurt? And even if I make it, will I one day think this was all a waste of time?

Really, none of us are sure what we should be doing, or whether we’re doing it right. And we make that problem a lot worse by constantly doubting ourselves. We measure ourselves against others. We have so many wishes and regrets that we can’t even see what we really need to be happy.

When I underwent my Vodou initiation, I got to experience a life without that self-doubt. For a week after the ceremony my patron spirit stayed in my head. During that time I never second guessed myself. I was more charming and charismatic than I normally am. I moved with a grace I don’t normally possess. And most importantly, I understood what others really wanted or needed, even if they had a hard time saying it. It was all because I turned off the doubt.

Eventually the presence of that spirit passed and, with it, that glorious freedom from self-worth. Sometimes the spirit comes back into me, when I really need it. And sometimes, if I quiet myself, I can conjure a little of that mind state on my own.

But the weight of that experience is much more than whether it makes my days easier. It proved to me that we are capable of this change. The promises of mystic texts are not untrue. You really can transcend doubt and fear, you really reach a state that is almost superhuman in its grace. That switch was already in me, and my initiation proved to me that I could flip it. I believe we all have that capability.

We all can do amazing things.

Art by Brocoli.

3. We Carry the Gods With Us

Despite all my questions and doubting up above, I’m not in a crisis of faith about the gods. Oh, it’s true, I don’t have much faith. But the third and final thing my journey has taught me is how little that matters.

Earlier in this article, I asked whether the gods are “real” or if we’re “imagining things.” But I don’t truly think those are the right words. We know the gods are real: they are real experiences people have everyday. Whether they are real subjectively, and come from our psyche, or objectively as independent beings, the thing we call “gods” is a real force that humans live with.

As I came to understand that, it took away the terror of losing these deities. Once, the idea that the gods weren’t “real” was like a personal affront to me. I actually felt angry when other polytheists entertained this idea. Like they had betrayed our gods.

But if the gods are purely psychological—which they might be—that doesn’t make them meaningless. Lots of things are in our heads: love, memories, warm feelings of friendship. The brain creates those things. We wouldn’t say they don’t matter.

Whether atheists like it or not, our species has carried the gods for the entirety of our existence. They may not be out there, but they are certainly in here, in our heads, where it counts. We find them when we perform ceremony, whatever they are; and their guidance is useful to us, wherever it may come from. Psychological gods can’t perform miracles, but they can do almost everything else.

Despite my skepticism, I’m not 100% sure there are no objectively real gods. But thanks to my Journey, I am completely certain there are subjectively real ones, and they are powerful. We carry our gods with us, wherever we go, passed from generation to generation; and when one generation forgets them the next one finds them again, by different names perhaps, but finds them every time.

The Journey Continues

I may not have found the gods yet, but I have found their tracks. I know they are inside us, and I know that contact with them can be life altering. My hope is to deepen my search by practicing more spiritual traditions hands-on as I continue on my way, and to broaden it by speaking more openly to people about their beliefs wherever I go.

Most of all I hope to reach deeper into myself, to continue working toward that state of no self doubt, of being totally at home with who I am. And I hope to share this journey with others.

What are your doubts and questions about the gods? Sometimes the journey seems hard to me, like I’ve picked up a weight I don’t need to carry. Does a spiritual search like this ever have a meaningful conclusion, or does it just lead to more questions?

It’s possible that with my skepticism, no experience will ever prove to me that I’ve met the gods. But I hold out hope that eventually I’ll get an answer. Please leave a comment and let me know: what do you think it means to meet the gods?

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Ask Me Anything, Primitivism, Religion

Does Outdoors Time Improve Priests?

Photo by Asaf Antman

 

Andrew asked me:

Thanks for your post on returning to the outdoors [here]… Do you think that contemporary priesthood should be more directly rooted to the outdoors? I think we often consider churches as the ‘house of God,’ but I also think that it would be more apt to say the whole planet is the house of God.

This is a good question.

Just to clear the air, I’m not Christian. From the way you phrase your question, with an emphasis capital-G God, I have to assume you’re coming from an Abrahamic background.

I’m a polytheist. We believe there are many faces of the divine—in other words, many deities. These deities did not create the universe nor do they rule over it. They live in it, just like you and me. They are the personalities of forces of nature (the wind, the sea, the sun, love, etc.). Relating to them is not necessary; they are not jealous gods. They were here long before us and they often watch us in silence. But if we choose to listen, we can hear them whisper their guidance.

I’m starting with that because it colors everything I believe about the role of religion and priesthood. Ultimately, priests are people who spend a lot of time building a close relationship with these beings. We learn about them and, hopefully, how to be like them.

For me, it’s easiest to find them in nature. But this isn’t true for everyone. All the natural forces are present in our cities and suburbs. Ultimately, we carry the gods inside ourselves, so we can hear them anywhere there is silence.

In my particular tradition, ceremonies are often held outdoors. Offerings are put outside. We sing to the sun when she rises and the moon when she first peeks out. There is poetry for the sea and the stars. Relating to nature is a powerful practice.

But I don’t think more outdoors time will improve a priesthood. A priest needs to serve a community. More than that, a priest needs to serve individuals, helping them discover their inner selves and pursue lives they’ll find meaningful.

To that end, I think the way to improve any ministry or priesthood is:

  • Don’t try to convert anyone or sell them on a doctrine. Doctrine isn’t as important as practice.
  • Teach practices that anyone can do and that create healthy changes over time. This includes things like meditation, contemplation and exercise.
  • Adapt to new ideas, new technology, and science—even when it conflicts with old beliefs.
  • Refuse to give empty reassurance. Most people go to their church or temple and receive a message that everything will be okay in the end. Then they go home and make no changes in their life, even if they’re unhappy.
  • Instead, show people how to make positive changes, especially when it’s hard and frightening to do so.

I haven’t succeeded at all of this as a priest. I did teach many people to meditate, and helped a smaller number of people find themselves and their purpose in life. But I also found that it’s very, very hard to get people to make changes in their lives. There’s a lot of fear there.

I think that spending time in the wilderness is ultimately for a priest’s own enlightenment and well-being. The question is: when they learn whatever they’re going to learn from that, what are they bringing back to people who live a normal life? That’s what a priest needs to answer. We need to come out of retreat and get our hands in the soil.

Have a question? Ask me anything

 

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Lúnasa Days is about leaving home, taking a risk, and believing in magic.

Available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

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Religion

The one religion that’s not part of my spiritual quest

Photo by Marko Rosic

Jesus Christ is not a very important religious figure.

Jesus is central in one out of 16 or five out of 43 major religions practiced in the world today. (In the first list I’m excluding “no religion,” “new religions” and “other” for my count, and in the second list I’m pointing to Christianity, Christian Science, Jehova’s Witnesses, Mormonism, and Rastafari.) By that count less than 6 – 11% of religions consider Christ important. With nods from Baha’i, Islam and Unitarianism, the figure rises to a max of 25%.

Likewise, the majority of people in the world today do not follow any branch of Christianity.

Yet the teachings of Christ loom large.

My mentor Ken reminded me of this. I travel because I hope to meet the gods. Wherever I go, I seek out local traditions, study new faiths and worship new deities. Sometimes, like with Vodou, I commit myself to these traditions for life.

Ken pointed out a massive blank spot on my spiritual-quest resumé:

“How can you have a life quest to meet the [g]ods, study different religions, and completely bypass the Bible?”

Jesus and Me

I avoid Christianity in my journey (mostly). I have reasons, but not the ones you think.

Growing up, I never had a bad church experience. I wasn’t abused, was seldom threatened with Hell, and didn’t feel constrained by my family’s beliefs. This is thanks in large part to my mom.

But I dodge Christianity. Even in my practice of Vodou, which uses Christian trappings as décor over a much older faith, I hesitated before lighting my first saint candle.

And here’s why: I’m sick of Jesus.

It’s fair to ask, “If you’re on a spiritual quest, why don’t you study the Bible?” But that’s like asking someone who wants to see the world why they don’t visit all 50 US states first. If you’re from the US, the states are boring! Of course you can find something cool and new in America, but “travel” means China, Angola, Transylvania. The same is true for spiritual journeys: you have to get away from your roots.

There’s a big ol’ pile of Christianity all around me. I haven’t celebrated Christmas in a decade, but I’ll hear so many carols this month that they’ll be stuck in my head till March. And I could recite most of the Catholic Mass by heart. Christianity is my backyard. It’s… boring.

There are deeper reasons. I object to Christianity on theological grounds. For example, I think it’s unfair to promise people an afterlife that probably doesn’t exist. And I disapprove of the exclusive focus on a single face of the divine. It seems antisocial in a world with thousands of gods.

Yet the theological stuff is secondary to the very strong reaction I have at the thought of studying or practicing Christianity: a sort of guttural more of that

I’ve been fed Jesus for thirty years. (Literally, for 14 of those years.) Imagine going to someone who just left a Chinese buffet and saying: hey, you didn’t have the good stuff, why don’t you eat even more egg rolls? You might be offering the best egg rolls in the world, but right now your poor friend just needs a salad or a nap.

I think it’s important for spiritual seekers, especially Western seekers, to remember that there’s a vast mosaic of beautiful, vibrant religions that each have their own lessons to give. Some teach the same crucial lessons Jesus did—they offer powerful touchstones for a life of kindness, forgiveness, charity and peace. Others emphasize completely different lessons, ones that Jesus kind of left out, like how to fight for this-world change instead of embracing poverty, or how to find and pursue your individual purpose and passion in life.

As a polytheist practicing non-universal religions, it’s not odd to me that a spiritual person would pass on the Bible. It’s far more strange that anyone who’s not of Hebrew descent would bother to consult Jesus instead of their own culture’s forgotten sages.

I will eventually read the Gospels. My Christian friends who know me best all agree that I’ll really enjoy them—I actually look forward to it. But should they enjoy pride of place in a spiritual quest? I think that’s up to the questor.

Want a preview of my upcoming book on Adventure? There’s still a few left. Take a look and grab one while you can!

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Religion

When We Heart Villains, Does It Matter If They’re Pretend?

Tomorrow, as every year, I will tweet out and re-share my article Fuck Saint Patrick. Then I will get a slew of criticism missing my point.

My point is, of course, that we shouldn’t praise people who do bad things, no matter what our religion. Patrick legendarily defiled temples in order to get his foothold in Ireland, and that’s just not someone I raise a pint for.

I can understand why some Christians would ignore that little snag (though I would suggest that immoral acts remain immoral even if you’re on the winning side). But it seems you don’t have to be a crusader for Christ to stand up for Patrick. Pagans and the non-religious have been kind enough to tell me over and over that the green bishop is totally great and his violent methods are no big deal. Why?

Because maybe they’re imaginary.

John wields bookkind.

John wields bookkind.

The Hagiography Defense

Even Pagan blogger Alison Leigh Lilly offers a version of this argument:

I like how the hagiographic (read:mythic) stories about a single man more than a thousand years ago weighs… on the minds of modern Pagans

She’s not the only one—this is the single most common reply I get (other than grateful high fives from other polytheists). After all, the stories of Patrick’s life come to us from medieval manuscripts written long after his time. They may not be accurate.

To which my reply is: and?

For starters, many Christians for many centuries took those stories as fact; they were happy to praise him believing the stories were true.

More to the point, I don’t know that celebrating a mythical villain is really any better than celebrating an historic one. (Note the difference from fictional; I’d gladly attend a Darth Vader Day.) Figures of myth are powerful symbols, and this one is tied up in forceful conversion. If we’re willing to celebrate that it should raise serious questions.

It’s worth noting that even if the scenes from Patrick’s life in his medieval biography are fictionalized, it’s unlikely that he was more tolerant. The biographies weren’t written by his enemies, trying to make him look bad, but by fellow Christians. They could have made him seem as peaceful as they wanted to. They chose to depict him as someone who would interrupt blessings, wreck holidays, smash religious statuary and desecrate temples.

But that’s long over; frankly it doesn’t get my blood up. What I find deeply uncomfortable is that people today continue to celebrate a man famous for such alleged acts—and then shame anyone who refuses to join in.

I’m not interested in playing the victim. The acts wreaked against my religion 1600 years ago do very little to affect my life today. And I don’t begrudge the wild partying; I’ll likely be out at a pub myself. But when I do I’ll be wearing black, my small non-violent, non-confrontational gesture of objection to what the myth named Patrick stands for.

Every year, this approach gets people asking questions, and when I answer calmly and unjudgingly, every year it turns into great, thoughtful conversations.

Please join me in wearing black, not green, on Patrick’s Day.

"Cadenas" by SpejoBlancoNegro

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