Category Archives: Religion

Great Conference

Yesterday, I drove to London Ontario to attend the Saturday sessions of the Gathering Mists Pagan Conference. As this was the first year that this conference has ever been held, it had a relatively small turnout. However, as we know, quantity isn’t generally a desirable alternative to quality. And when it comes to quality, I am of the opinion that yesterday’s activities were the cream of the crop. The guest speakers were personable, clearly knowledgeable about the topics they discussed, and communicated that knowledge concisely to those of us not quite so “in the know.” The topics chosen for each workshop were also interesting and engaging.

The first workshop that I attended in the morning was “Bardic Tradition in Ritual,” presented by Greg Currie, aka “Frosty the Pagan.” Frosty discussed the various modes of musical expression from simple rhythm to complex productions where music is combined with various other ritual forms of expression. He also described the various ways in which these forms of musical expression can be used effectively in ritual, from being a “background activity” to being an integral part of the primary activity. Making use of his drum and guitar, he was able to give live demonstrations of some of the concepts he was discussing. The workshop eventually ended with full group participation in singing some chants — including one chant in which two groups sang completely different parts simultneously. As an aside, a fascinating discusison cropped up during this work shop in which everybody discussed the relationship between music and dance, especially the symbiotic relationships that tend to form between dancers and drummers during a good drumming circle.

The next workshop that I attended was “Building Respectful Relationships,” presented by Jennifer Drummond. This workshop primarily focused on becoming aware of how one’s past experiences, culture, family life, and other factors affect the way that you communicate ideas as well as being aware that similar “filters” affect how the perso you are talking to interprets what you say. Jennifer spent some time discussing tools to help with building this awareness and learning to work through the resulting communication problems. She also discussed such topics as setting boundaries and dealing with “triggers” effectively. Because of the size of the group (this is one of those cases where I felt the lower turnout actually worked to the workshop’s advantage), Jennifer was able to learn about attendees’ personal communication experiences and offer specific insights.

The third workshop I attended was “The Implications of Korean Shamanism,” presented by Castalia. In this workshop, Castalia describes the current status of the Korean mansin (pronounced “man-SHEEN”), particularly noting how they have fallen from being highly revered as political advisors to people very low on the socio-economic ladder and Korea’s “dirty lttle secret.” Castalia made a strong case in suggesting that this transition is analogous to what would have happened to European Paganism if Christians in political power had waged a war of attrition against them rather than one of persecution and violence. She also noted a number of similarities in practice and belief between these Korean shamans and the witches of Europe. To do this, she summarized various anthropoligists’ descriptions of the Kut (long U sound), a shamanic rite for exorcising the poisonous spirits from a home and blessing it. Her information was fascinating on many levels, both to see what a vibrant tradition still thrives in Korea (despite being frowned upon and attempts to keep it secret) and to see some of the parallels to modern European revivals and reconstructions.

I would also like to take a moment to mention the main ritual that was held yesterday at the conference, led by Richard and Tamara James, founders of the Wiccan Church of Canada. It was a simple, yet beautiful and touching rite. The phrasing chosen for each part in the rite was filled with skillful beauty that was only matched by the deep love an respect of those who participated. I have participated in a small number public rites, but I’d be hard pressed to think of one that I found as personally touching.

My trip also gave me an excellent chance to socialize, meet old friends, build on aquaintanceships, and meet some new people. I believe that each interraction yesterday enriched my life in one way or another. For that, I will always be thankful.

Overall, I found my experience at Gathering Mists to be enjoyable, engaging, and uplifting. I can only hope that this event will continue for many years. I would encourage anyone who can make it next year to do so. I doubt you will be disappointed.

Reviewing Wicca’s Charm: The Inevitable Salem Stop

During this past Halloween season, I ran across an article by a woman named Catherine Edwards Sanders. In this article, she wrote a few comments on the growing interest in “Wicca” (she uses the term in a broader context than I do) and Paganism, as well as explaining how this growing interest represents a failure on the part of “the Church” as a whole. As part of her by-line on the article, she mentions that she also wrote a book on the same subject, whose title is Wicca’s Charm: Understanding the Spiritual Hunger Behind the Rise of Modern Witchcraft and Pagan Spirituality. Being the curious sort, I decided to order a copy. It came today, and so far I have torn through the preface and first chapter.

So far, I think the book deserves a fair amount of praise. This is not to say that I agree with everything the author says, mind you. Indeed, I think there are some points that need to be criticized. But so far, I think that the woman deserves a great deal of credit for setting her personal and religious views aside as much as possible and trying to understand the practices of those she observed and interviewed. As such, I feel it only appropriate to take a close look at her book and investigate both those areas where she made some excellent observations and those areas where her information, presentation of that information, or both are weak or faulty. It is my intention to do this in this blog — both this entry an future ones — as I read through the book.

The first thing I notice in chapter one is that it seems to me that the majority of her “sources” are from the “eclectic Wiccan” camp. (Even the one interviewee in this chapter that identifies as having become a Gardnerian says some thign I’d consider uncharcteristic of most Garderians, and I’ve met more than a few) I’m not sure if this is just the nature of this chapter — after all, it focuses mostly on her encounter with and investigation of the “Pagan” side of Salem around Halloween — or will continue through the book, but it does raise a bit of concern to me. After all, it raises a strong risk of painting all Pagans with the same broad brush. And even among the “Wiccans,” the image she’s portraying will not remain accurate for long.

Sanders actually opens chapter one by describing a “spell performed for spectators” that she witnessed. I must say that I admire Sanders for her even tone in the description of this rite. She neither tries to make it sound more sensationalistic than it is nor tries to deride it as a bunch of “nonsense.” Instead, she gives a matter-of-fact, clearly descriptive account. This account immediately demonstrates her sincerity in wanting to represent the subject of her books fairly and kindly. Truth be told, I felt she gave a much kinder description of the rite than i would have been inclined to offer, myself. After all, I’m inclined to call into question the very idea of doing a spell “so that spectators can watch” (and charging them for the privelege, no less!), whereas Sanders is willing to let such a dubious activity pass without challenge.

She then gives a brief “history” of Wicca, repeating the commonly held — if not entirely accurate in my opinion — view that Gardner and his colleagues cobbled the religion out of a number of sources. While she doesn’t come right out and say that she disbelieves the stories of Gardner’s involvement with New Forest Coven (or NFC’s very existence), she does seem to hint that she’s of that mindset. Of course, given her sources, that’s mostly understandable.

Sanders then offers four basic points that she considers to be common threads in the various practices of “Wicca.” I think that these four points deserve special consideration and examination, as they again demonstrate the kinds of “Wiccans” she was observing and interviewing. As such I shall take each point as she writes them. The first point, she summarizes as follows:

All is one — Wiccans hold the monistic and pantheistic beliefs that all living things are of equal value. Humans have no special place, nor are they made in God’s image. They have, for example, the same value as flowers, trees, or grass. The cosmos is undifferentiated universal engergy, and everything is one vast, interconnected process.

Based on the Wicca I know, I find it difficult to comment on how accurately it reflects their practice. It is neither entirely accurate, nor entirely inaccurate. Furthermore, it is rather difficult to point out to specific points within this statement and say “this is true, but that isn’t.” While it is true that the Wicca tend to believe that many people in our society tend to over-emphasize the value of human beings in comparison to the value of non-human life (or even those things that we don’t generally view as alive), I would not say go so far as to say that they see everything as being “the same” or “undifferentiated.” In fact, I’d argue that it’s quite the opposite. They see the individual and unique beauty of both humans and all other parts of the world around us, and they appreciate each one for its own greatness. In this sense, there is this idea of thigns being “valued differently,” which must be honored in it’s own right. Contrast this with the idea of being “less valued” or “more valued,” and you get a more clear idea.

Point two reads as follows:

You are divine — Wiccans believe they possess divine power within themselves and that they are gods or goddesses.

To be honest, I wonder how much of this point comes from Sanders’ communications with “public witches” like Laurie Cabot and those who follow them. Most of the Wicca I know — as well as most other witches and Pagans — hold no such belief. While it is true that the Wicca believe that each individual is a reflection and representative of the gods and that the gods can be seen within each individual, this is a far cry from actually believing one is a fully fledged god. It seems to me that Sanders has either met some rather unusual witches in her studies or she is misunderstanding what is actually believed by most.

The third point is as follows:

Personal power is unlimited — Wiccans believe that their power is not limited by a deity, as in Christianity.

This is the first point I think the Wicca I know might actually agree with her on. But to be honest, I’m surprised most of the “Wiccans” she spoke with also believe this. In my experience many people still have this idea that magic is still “asking” or “getting” the gods to do something for them, much as Christians see prayers of petition.

The fourth and final point reads as follows:

Consciousness can and should be altered through the pracice of rite and ritual — Wiccans believe in the supernatural realm and the practice of altered consciousness through rite, ritual, and spell-casting in which they tap into the power and energy of the unseens spirit world.

This is fairly accurate, though I might personally eschew the use of the word “supernatural.” Personally, I’m inclined to view the “spirit world” as natural as the “physical world,” just of a nature we can’t quite understand in the same way at this time. Indeed, I think that this constant tendency to separate the “physical” and “spiritual” or “supernatural” into two neat packages that have nothing to do with one another to be an area of concern. And unfortunately, it’s a tendency found in various forms of both Christianity and Paganism.

I think that Sanders next hits upon a goldmine, but then glosses over it too quickly. She mentions that “Wicca” seems to delight in having no orthodoxy (quoting what is probably one of the few actually useful things Aidan Kelly has ever said on the topic of Wicca in his entire life). She points out that rather than focusing on doctrine, direct experience seems to be important. This is something I personally do not believe that can be emphasized enough, as the proper performance of certain rites and the internalization of the resulting experiences is the heart and soul of Wicca. Unfortunately, this heart and soul is too often lacking in eclectic circles. In her own way, Sanders points this out as she goes on to say that “Wicca” is instead defined “in opposition to issues such as environmental degradation, the perceived patriarchy within Christianity, or monotheism in general.” If this is truly how the “Wiccans” Sanders interviewed see Wicca, then I am inclined to suggest that they “missed the boat” in that regards. Unfortunately, Sanders seems to be equally unaware of that state of affairs.

Sanders next tackles the question of Satan. In this area, Sanders deserves more praise. She again states clearly and almost emphatically that “Wiccans” do not believe they worship Satan. Moreover, she presses the issue by stating that she considers it inappropriate for Christians to accuse them of being Satan worshippers. In this, she does draw the fine line that there is a difference between believing that Pagans are “unwittingly” worshipping Satan in disguise (a position she implies that she holds herself) and believing they knowingly and explicitly worship him. It is the latter she is decrying in this part, and she makes a strong case for her views.

One thing that I do note about this part of her discussion is that she brings up that “Wiccans” don’t believe in Satan and the fact that they don’t believe in “absolute evil” in the same paragraph, suggesting the two are somehow linked. I find this curious, as it again suggests a belief on her part that Satan is the absolute source of evil (for more thoughts on this topic, I refer the curious reader back to an earlier entry I posted that touched on that line of thinking.

This chapter review has grown long. I think I will leave my remaining thoughts for another entry on another day. In the meantime, I hope my readers will find this review informative.

Someone should help him before he hurts himself — or others

Sometime last week, I ran across this entry by a young Christian blogger. I decided to leave him a comment, though I get the impression he completely missed my point. I left him a second comment, hoping that maybe it’ll clarify what I’m getting at.

Now, I’m going to set aside my personal feelings about his theology for the moment. I’m going to set aside the natural defensiveness some part of me feels over his comments about my religious practices. After all, at least on an “intellectual level,” I can respect his right to hold his opinions on these things. I can even respect his right to express those opinions.

But at the same time, I can only feel that this is a young man without any practical direction, and that spells disaster in my mind. In all of his statements, I don’t see even the slightest hint of a sense of how he’s going to go about living a more “visible” relationship for God. Well, at least not beyond spouting off catchphrases and buzzwords like a motivational speaker.

Of course, part of me wonders if that’s not part of the problem. I find myself wondering if he’s been to one too many “revival meetings” of a certain sort. You know, those meetings where someone stands in front of a crowd, gives a number of compelling speeches designed specifically to stir everyone’s emotions and get them “worked up for Jesus,” but then leave their “revived” people to wonder what happened once the emotional high is over and real life set in. All because while said speaker(s) got them all worked up, they didn’t do a very good job of keeping things going. (And let’s face it, there’s only so long you can keep an emotional high going. It’s one reason churches don’t have “revival meetings” every Sunday.)

What really worries me — and what should worry all Christians out there — is what kind of bridges this young man might burn in his current state. He’s so hyped up that he almost seems to be looking for a “glorious confrontation.” (Read his other two entries and you’ll see more of what I’m talking about.) And while that sounds great in theory, it’s a pretty good way of making some enemies. And you know, it’s rather difficult to share any message, let alone the gospel message, with an enemy.

And as much as it bugs me, I have to admit that we witches and Pagans tend to be grudge-holders. We tend to look at someone like this young man who, in his sincere exuberance, tends to put a chasm between himself and those he wants to “save” by his poorly chosen words and deeds, and we tend to see all well-meaning Christians through the filter of our experiences with him. So we quit listening to all of them. The rude, the well-meaning but ill-prepared, the sincere and wise, they’re all seen through the lense of past experience. And when that lense has the most confrontational of the lot embedded in it, it can create quite a distortion. (Natureally, those of us who have gained wisdom try to overcome this “filtering process,” but even we can have our difficulties from time to time.

Hopefully, someone will take this young man aside and teach him some wisdom and compassion to go along with his enthusiasm and conviction. Otherwise, I suspect this will end badly. For everyone involved.

Tax Breaks for Dutch Student Witches?

I’ve run across several rposts of an AP article about a court ruling to allow students attending a “school for witches” in the Netherlands to write off the cost of tuition for tax purposes. Having seen it, I thought it would be a good idea for me to post my own thoughts.

First of all, I expect there to be a huge fuss over this. As the article indicates, there’s already those who are of the opinion that this is little more than a government “endorsing witchcraft.” And I suspect we will be hearing more of the same as the news gets out. (I can just hear the howls of outraged 700 Club fans now.) Of course, I find myself wondering why no one complains about the number of “church owned projects” that are being “endorsed” by the government due to the fact that the church can extend their tax exempt status to those projects. (Even my evangelical and rather conservative father is becoming disgusted with how American churches are — in his opinion, at least — abusing their tax exempt status by the things they claim as “church owned.”) In my mind, all of this outrage underscores the deep-seated belief that Christians have the right to decide what constitutes a “religion” deserving of Constitutionally protected status.

Now, having said that, I have to admit that I have my own concerns about this decision. For example, according to the article, the court ruling indicated that scholing costs can be declared if said schooling increases their likelihood of employment and personal income. I find myself wondering how attending a school for witches reasonably does either. Unless the Netherlands actually allows for professional witches to hire out their services — and for all I know, they do — I don’t see how this improves their employability. I’ve never seen a job opportunity where my circle casting or chanting skills have been all that relevant, let alone something that would give me a “leg up” on my competitors for the position. I might be able to argue that there are subtle life skills I have learned as I’ve practiced my Craft that have contributed to my effectiveness as an employee. However, that would be tough to argue. And it would be nearly impossible to argue that I’d specifically learned those skills thanks to a school in witchcraft. I’m just not sure how someone can reasonably demonstrate that an “education in witchcraft” has improved their employability except in very rare cases. (The other possibility that comes to mind is that one could become a professional tarot reader. But again, I can think of alternative — and cheaper — routes to get set up in that line of business.)

Of course, given where my interest lie, the idea of a “school” where you “learn witchcraft” — and pay for it, no less — just makes me bristle. The taking of money implies that anyone who can pay the almost $3000 and attend all the courses will become a witch. As I understand witchcraft, that’s not how things work. Being a witch is learning more than the “right stuff.” It’s as much about attitude and the ability to see things in a certain way as it is about knowing the right things — or even knowing how to do the right things. And these are things that one cannot guarantee a student will learn.

Now having said that, I’m sure that the people going to this school all learn something. And whatever they may be learning might be valuable. I’m just not sure it’ll always be “witchcraft” that they’ve learned. And I certainly don’t think it guarantees that every student who completes the course of study will attain “witchhood.”

Religion: Moving from memory to life application

I was just reading one of the liberal Christian blogs I like to keep up with, and discovered his recent entry about his son’s confirmation in the Lutheran church. First of all, I’d encourage everyone to check out his son’s “personal profession of faith” which he wrote. Personally, even though I don’t necessarily share his views, I thought it was an excellent attempt by the young man to grapple with his own faith and what it means to him. I think that more young people should be encouraged to do this.

The (rightfully) proud father prefaces this by pointing out that this practice of encouraging confirmands to write their personal statements of faith as a part of the confirmation process is a relatively new one. He compares this practice to “back in the day” when he himself was confirmed, in which the confirmation process involved memorizing a number of various pieces of information (such as the Apostles’ Creed and the ten commandments) and then being quizzed on it. He briefly mentions the anxiety he and his peers felt during this process and confesses that he wasn’t sure how it really demonstrateded they were “ready to assume the rights and responsibilities of adulthood in the church’s eyes.”

I’m inclined to agree with the blogger’s point of view on that one. The confirmation process that his son recently went through strikes me as much more reasonable, not to mention valuable. This is based on my own firm belief that one’s faith must be more than mere rote memorization of certain creeds, laws, and other doctrinal points and “bits of information” deemed “worthy.” As I mentioned in my commemnt to the blogger, it seems to me that faith essentially requires the understanding and wisdom to apply all of that knowledge, lest said knowledge remain little more than “useless trivia” tucked away in some recess of the memory.

Towards the end of my time in church and involvement with my church’s Sunday School program, I became more aware of this problem. Too often, our program would rely on rote memorization without actually teaching the kids much about what it means to live out one’s faith. (Oh sure, we went over the ten commandments and told everyone that they shouldn’t lie, cheat, steal, or the other assorted sins young children are most likely to be presented with, but a faithful life needs to be more than these things.) We filled those kids with our “head knowledge” and gave them little else. So it’s nice to see that at least some churches are coming around and trying to correct that error.

Now if only today’s pagans and witches would also catch wind of that idea. After all, we still too often rely on “head knowledge.” What’s the first thing we tell everyone who says they’re interested in Paganism/Wicca/witchcraft? “Read, read, and read.” We encourage them to fill their heads with information (and let’s not forget that 99% of the information they’ll probably find is bad.) But we don’t talk about the practical, “living the faith” kinds of things.

So “newbies” become “collectors of things.” They collect the various snippets of lore and poetry that have made it into the public domain (both legitimately and illegitimately), the lists of “healing crystals and their uses,” the lists of “elemental correspondenses,” the lists of “gods and their functions,” and all kinds of other things.

But where’s the serious contemplation of what it means to honor the old gods? Where is the deep searching of what it means to live “in tune with nature”? (Actually, I think “living in tune with nature” isn’t as big a part of Paganism as some would suggest, but if people are going to bandy about that phrase, I think it a good idea to start talking about how to practically go about accomplishing it.) Where is the deep discussion of how the Wheel of the Year affects us on a deep, personal level?

Maybe like the Christian blogger I mentioned, these are things that will only be sorted when my own children start down the Pagan paths. Maybe it’ll be longer than that. But I hope that we start thinking about these things now, so that this essential shift in focus happens some time.

Who needs external symbols for evil, anyway?

Doing random searches for blogs, I ran across another blogger’s diatribe about Halloween. Now, I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of Halloween myself. (Indeed, I’m quite happy that I observe Samhain based on an astrological calendar, as it places my ritual observances as a separate event from Halloween altogether.) Unlike the author of that blog post, though, I do tend to see Halloween (except for the prankish part) as mostly “harmless fun.”

But what really caught my attention was this bloggers argument against it. It seemed that the crux of his argument is that it “desensitizes” people to the “traditional symbols of evil” — such as the devil. The continuing thought from that point is that this desensitization will allow “moral relativity” to reign supreme because those moral systems of the faiths that provided these symbols will be devalued at the same time.

I see a number of problems with this viewpoint. The basic underlying problem is that it underscores the fact that these “traditional faiths” (namely certain sects of Christianity, because no other faith seems to see the Devil in quite that same light) are relying too heavily on these “symbols of evil” to begin with. Personally, I think that it’s time that these faiths quit hanging quite so tightly onto this idea of “the Devil” as the source of evil. After all, the Bible does not start with the downfall of Lucifer, but with the sin of Adam and Eve. And it continues from there with many more stories describing the evils of countless human beings. While I admit that it’s been years since I’ve done any serious Biblical research, it seems to me that when you look at the countless evils carried out by humans in its pages, you begin to notice that the antics of Satan and his minions seem to be little more than subtext.

Indeed, it seems that religious groups that focus on these “external symbols of evil” such as devils have lost the very essence and point of their religious texts. The evil isn’t (just) “out there” with “devils” and other such creatures. There’s real evil lurking in the hearts of men and women everywhere. Perhaps if we took that reality a bit more seriously, how people view and treat those “traditional symbols of evil” wouldn’t be as essential.

Thirty Days

For the first time ever, I watched the show “Thirty Days” tonight. My friend Beth told me about it, and I wanted to check it out. I particularly wanted to watch tonight’s episode, as it was about a young (mid-twenties) conservative Christian from Detroit who went to live with a gay roommate in the middle of San Francisco’s Castro District for thirty days. I was pleasantly surprised by the show, and I wanted to take a few moments to review and critique it.

To be honest, when I originally heard about the details, I wasn’t entirely thrilled. I took issue with sending the guy to San Francisco. San Francisco is the “gay mecca” of the United States, and as such, I don’t feel it’s a very accurate representation of the lives of most gay people. Those of us wholive outside of San Francisco (and possibly NYC) tend to live more isolated lives and have to deal more directly with straight people much more often. As such, I wasn’t sure that sending someone to San Francisco was the best way to give them a clear view of what it’s like to live life as a gay man.

Having watched the show, I have to admit that I find it necessary to reevaluate my opinion. An essential byproduct of sending Ryan to live in the Castro District was that it caused Ryan to be the one who was isolated. He was a straight, conservative Christian surrounded by a bunch of gay guys. If Ryan really thinks about that experience (and I get the impression he did and will), it probably gave him a much more clear idea of what many of us experience every day than we realize. This understanding would come to him by being in an analogous situation himself.

He got a first taste of this kind of experience his first night in town. Ed, Ryan’s thirty-something roommate for the month, took him to dinner with eleven other gay guys. Having watched the footage, I have to admit that I hope the dinner conversation was highly edited. Every conversation focused on homosexuality and issues relating to it. And in a number of instances, the twelve gay guys put Ryan a bit on the defensive. (I have to admit that Ryan handled himself relatively well under the circumstances, too.) At one point, one of the gay guys even asked Ryan about how many times he’s had people on the street throw beer cans at him. Ryan said never, and the person who asked the question indicated that it had happened to him more than once.

While there, Ryan also attended MCC services on at least two Sundays and had a number of meeting with the minister. To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed with this part of the program. If what I saw was an accurate representation of the MCC, I don’t think I’d be impressed at all. They aired brief segments from two of the services that Ryan attended, and both services went on about homosexuality. If this is a regular practice at every church service, I would have a serious problem with that, as there should be more to religion and spirituality than just sexuality. (And this is coming from someone who serves a goddess who values sexuality extremely highly!) Similarly, Ryan’s meetings with the minister appeared to focus entirely on the topic of homosexuality, and there was a lot of head-butting there. It just seemed to me that there should have been an equal amount of searching for common ground as there was in arguing over this one topic. (Though I do give them credit for apparently keeping it more or less civil.)

They took Ryan to a gay bar. Let me just say “Wow!” Ryan did not find that the greatest of experiences, and I can’t say as I completely blame him. There were a large number of barely dressed men (some looked to me as if they were running around in only briefs), and it definitely had the “meat market atmosphere” — even moreso than the two clubs I have been to. One of the patrons picked a (verbal) fight with Ryan, which I felt was rather stupid. Though on the flip side, having had conservative people pick similar kinds of fights with me, I do have to admit that I felt it wasn’t an entirely bad thing for Ryan to have to experience.

After that, Ed felt that Ryan was getting too frustrated and upset. So Ed took Ryan to join a gay softball team. I found it interesting that the team actually played in a league where all the other teams were (mostly?) straight. It was nice to see that the team wasn’t totally isolationist in nature, and played teams that were not all-gay.

During his time playing softball, Ryan got to spend time with his team’s coach, Charles. Ryan gained a lot of respect for Charles, realizing that he broke all of the gay stereotypes. And later, Ryan got to hear Charles’s coming out story. Charles was one of those (hopefully) rare people who actually got thrown out of his house by his parents (he was 12 at the time) when he came out. Charles also indicated that at the time, he was highly religious and “went to bed every night, praying to wake up and be ‘normal’ the next morning.” Ryan was very silent about this, and I think this story really confronted some of his own preconceived notions.

Ryan did make a few enemies at the local “gay chapter” of the VFW. Being a Reservice, Ryan has strong opinions on gays in the military. This did not go over well with the veterans he was speaking with. Both sides got quite upset. However, it did lead to an interesting discussion with Ed later that same day. When he got back to the apartment, Ryan and Ed talked about it. Ryan asked Ed to try to understand why a bunch of straight soldiers might have a problem with having a gay guy in the barracks. (Personally, I think straight guys have a problem with it because they’re afraid gay guys will treat them as poorly as they themselves treat women, but that’s besides the point.) Ed then turned around and asked Ryan about a hypothetical question. He asked Ryan to suppose that things went really bad in teh Middle East and that the United States found themselves at war with the whole region. This would probably mean that they’d have to reinstate the draft. So Ed asked Ryan to suppose that he (Ed) was drafted and ended up in Ryan’s unit to serve during war. He asked Ryan whether he’d rather put up with Ed as a gay man serving with him or possibly not having enough manpower beside him to keep him and the rest of his unit safe.

Ryan actually admitted that he had to contradict himself. He admitted that having gotten to know Ed as a person over the past several days, he’d have no problem serving with him specifically. In fact, Ryan admitted that he felt that Ed had a lot to offer the military. As such, Ryan found himself having to reevaluate his blanket statement about gays in the military, and I respect him for having the integrity to admit that.

Ed also took Ryan to meet his family, which was an eye opening experience. While there, all of the men (Ryan, Ed, Ed’s father, and Ed’s brother) shot firearms. In a brief interview afterwards, Ryan admitted that it gave him a chance to see Ed as not just a gay guy but a brother, a son, and an uncle. And he was amazed at how his family treated him.

Ryan also attended a PFLAG meeting, where he got to talk to a father whose daughter came out to him her sophomore year in college. He got to listen to this father talk about his fears and worries, and his desire to see his daughter treated with the same respect and dignity a her two straight brothers. Ryan said this also touched his heart.

There was a lot more that happened, but I’m not going to go into everything. These are the experiences that really struck me, and I wanted to share them, as well as my brief thoughts in them. In closing, I’d like to talk about the brief segment in the show where Ryan eventually went home. He spent his first night home showing photos to his family and talking about his experiences. They only showed about thirty seconds to a minute of the discussion, but it was amazing to watch. His family asked all kinds of questions, and it seemed to me that Ryan was a bit troubled and shocked by the questions. Ryan himself admitted that when he got home and talked with his family that night, he really saw how much he had grown. He saw his own earlier attitudes and how much he had bought into the stereotypes reflected in his family now. He said that realizing how much he had bought into the stereotypes was the most powerful result of the experience. He found himself having to reevaluate his opinions.

I get the impression that his religious beliefs about homosexuality didn’t change as a result. To be honest, that’s okay (well, sorta). It would be unreasonable to expect such a change to happen just because of a thirty day experience. However, I did feel that he came away with a rather different perspective and that he did find his preconceived notions challenged in many ways. And I think that he should be commended to being open to that.

Religious Rant/Ramblings

Today was a pretty good day. I didn’t get a lot of work done, but I did enough to keep myself from getting overwhelmed with guilt. Primarily, I rewrote all of my PCI-X code for the new processor. That was quite an adventure, as I had to handle three different PCI-X cores on the same processor. I hope that all works when I get a chance to finally test it. Of course, that won’t be until the middle of next month, by the look of it.

I spent more of they day putzing around online. Particularly, I spent a good deal of time getting highly annoyed at the one topic on one of the religious forums I visit. Someone started a thread called “Ask a Pagan,” for people to ask all kinds of questions about Paganism. Unfortunately, while a few people have asked some interesting and probing questions, most have taken the opportunity to ask pointed questions to prove why Paganism is “wrong.”

That just annoys me. Why is it that some people have to be such jerks? Why is it that any opportunity to learn about another religion has to be used as a way to “trap” that religion in some way to disprove it? Why can’t more people be like Stace, who sincerely asks questions to better understand others and their viewpoints? But I guess that takes maturity. And my experience, maturity is something that’s severely lacking in our society today. Instead, everything has to be turned into a penis-measuring contest of one sort or another.

Of course, I have to admit that I found a lot of the Pagans’ answers trite, boring, and annoying, too. For starters, they let themselves get dragged into the whole “how can all paths be valid” argument, though “abyss that pretends to be an argument” might be more accurate. Truthfully, I’m not sure I care for the whole “all paths are valid” model anyway. I think there has to be a decent middle ground between saying “I have a monopoly on truth” and sayng “well, everything anyone wants to believe is true.” Of course, this gets into bigger questions as to what constitutes “valid” and whatnot. And while I could probably go on a lengthy ramble abou that, I’m not sure I care to at this time. Let me just say that I think it’s time to say, “Truth is a very complex thing and I think that people can have equally accurate and yet distinct perceptions of truth, but it is not my concern to determine or comment on the ‘validity’ of any particular claims of truth.” But that probably only makes sense to me, and that’s subject to change.

Circumstance as a litmus test?

Ive been listening to Frank Perettis This Present Darkness on tape again. Its a highly enjoyable book for the most part. Some of the theological implications make me wonder at times, though. I suspect part of that is just because Im not a Christian. But a lot of it even makes me wonder how well it fits to a Christian perspective.

Take for example the one part I listened to on my way to work this morning. It takes place shortly after the church votes (but just barely) to keep Hank as their pastor. Hank and his wife, Mary, are sitting together in the kitchen of Grandma Edith Duster. Edith is one of Hanks biggest supporters, and she spends much of this particular conversation encouraging Hank. In it, she makes the comment that if Hank wasnt where God wanted him to be, he wouldnt be accomplishing as much as he can. The more that I think about this, the more it seems like divining the will of God from mere circumstance. And to be honest, that strikes me as an odd, fickle, and possibly dangerous thing to do.

Back in my college years, I remember learning about the concept of fleecing. Its a term used in certain Christian circles to describe a certain way of testing for the will of God. The idea is based on the Old Testament (from the book of Judges, if memory serves) story of Gideon and his fleece. In that story, God calls on Gideon to save the Israelites from the enemy (the Philistines, I think, but dont quote me on that). Well, Gideon is doubtful and God offers to prove His desire for Gideon. One of Gods proofs involves a fleece that Gideon put outdoors overnight. This happens twice. During one time, the fleece is left bone dry while the ground is wet with dew. The other time, God causes the fleece to be wet while the ground around it is completely dry. Such a miraculous event helps to demonstrate Gods power and will for Gideon. Gideon then agrees.

The idea of modern day fleecing works the same way. A Christian decides on some sign that will demonstrate that a given choice is Gods will. This concept is actually demonstrated in another Peretti boo The Visitation where young Travis Jordan decides that God will show him when he is supposed to head out to join Billy Grahams ministry by making it so that a banjo head he ordered arrives at the music store. In that story, Peretti demonstrates one of the great problems in fleecing; that is, the sign event is often something that is bound to happen anyway. So theres no real proof that the event is just happenstance or a legitimate sign from God. And I know other writers and theologians who have given much deeper explanations on the problem with fleecing.

But it seems to me that Edith Dusters comment is as much a sign of fleecing as any test involving a banjo head. It seems to me that its still a matter of relying on a matter of circumstance or circumstances that may well occur on their own without Gods miraculous intervention to determine whether one is following Gods will. It just strikes me as a shortcut to honest introspection and seeking the Will of God.

Now, I readily admit that part of my opinion on this is almost certainly influenced by my non-Christian views. In fact, Id say its further influence by the fact that Im a witch. After all, it seems to me that relying on circumstance to divine anything be it the Will of God or some impersonal force such as Fate flies in the face of underlying philosophy of my beliefs as a maker of magic. Thats why I have an equal problem with Neo-Wiccans who attribute their circumstances to fate and karma and then choose to passively live whatever life the world deems willing to give them. But it seems to me that the idea that something as fickle and highly susceptible to just about every influence as circumstance should be chosen as a litmus test for anything should bother anyone who remotely believes in free will and personal responsibility.

(Of course, the irony among some Christians is that many who will tell you that they must be in the Will of God because of all the good they’re doing will then turn around in times of trouble and tell you that their tribulations are signs that they’re in the Will of God because it’s obviously Satan trying to keep them down. But that’s probably a whole different entry.)

Ethics and “Harm None”

You know, when it comes to ethics, I’ve never liked the whole concept of “harm none.” Personally, it’s always bugged me that so many Neo-Wiccans have held the phrase up as the definitive word on ethics. But it wasn’t until I got thinking about it this morning that I really was able to express my beef.

Now, there are a number of reasons to have a beef with “harm none” as the ultimate guideline. For example, it’s easiest to point out that when you get right down to it, 100% harmlessness is rarely possible, if not downright impossible. In fact, this is the one that I see get tossed up a couple times a year in Pagan chatrooms. And while it’s a valid point, it misses one of the more fundamental problems with this idea. In fact, it’s the same fundamental problem that haunts other systems of morality that are based on a series of prohibitions. And that’s the problem that it’s trying to define ethical considerations solely in terms of negative guidance.

Ethics are meant to guide activity. A person tries to determine what course in a given choice through his ethics. And an ethical system that only tells you what not to do or what results to avoid is severely limited. After all, once you weed out all the things you shouldn’t do, you’re still left with the question of what to do.

Consider for a moment this analogy. One should always drive safely. One can safely say that driving safely boils down to driving in such a way where one does not cause or become involved in accidents. In fact, an accident-free driving record is one of the two major factors insurance companies use to determine whether a given driver should qualify for a “safe driver discount.” And yet, if you attended a driving safety course, you would expect the instruction of that course to include more than “don’t get into any accidents.” While the advice is perfectly valid and a commendable goal, it gives no indication on how to achieve it. It’s a dictum based on negative action and not very helpful when applying it to the positive actions you must take. For that, you need positive advice, such as “always obey the speed limit” and “check your mirrors and blind spots regularly.”

The same is true of ethics. Positive action must be taken. One cannot simply “not harm anyone,” but must find guidelines for acting in a way that will bring about the goal (insofar as that goal is desirable, but that’s another issue for another entry). In effect, the ethical system must be expanded offer positive guidelines that can be applied when considering positive action.

However, unlike my analogy, I don’t think that “harming none” is a sufficient goal for ethics. Because we are creatures of positive action rather than negative action (it is more natural to “do something” than it is to spend much time “not doing something”), our ethics should lead us in this. Ethics should lead us to not only avoid wrong behavior, but to lead and even goad us into right behavior, which should be expressed in terms.

“Harm none” does not give us this. It keeps us in that half-ethical state of telling us to avoid wrong — without actually giving practical advice on how to do so — without leading us into action that we know is right. This is why I personally prefer to base my ethics on a set of values, those things that I see as right, honorable, and worthy of being upheld. In this sense, I think that people like Asatru with their Nine Noble Virtues (though I’m not entirely on board with them, either, though I still have yet to put my finger on why) are more on the right track when it comes to a matter of ethics.