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Pagan Theology:  Frivolous

“One cannot be cast out of what he is already in.  Unless of course you are thinking in terms of a clay pot which, when broken, spills its contents not into oblivion but into the air or the earth, or the like” —Porphyry, Against the Christians [1]

In this column I was going to talk about the direct experience of the Gods and Goddesses.  It was going to be the beginning of a discussion on magic and mysticism in Pagan experience.

Then I got an e-mail from a friend talking about the Veteran’s Administration emblem debate.  For those unfamiliar with the problem, the widow of a soldier killed in Afghanistan has asked to have the pentacle inscribed on his gravestone.  Parse that one:  a soldier, who is Pagan, wants his religion, reflected on his grave.  And the godly Bush administration is turning him down.  Consistently, stubbornly, and for a while now.[2]

But Pagans are just as stubborn and perhaps ten times as clever.  Just as we Pagans were actually getting close to winning, the VA decided to change the rules.[3]   The rule they are proposing spells out a set of requirements for an emblem to be placed on a Veteran’s grave.  This rule includes a definition of what constitutes a religion, the need for tax-exempt status, and lots of other things.  But, because Pagan groups can meet all those requirements, they add a loophole in the regulations.  Specifically:[4]

(3) Belief system refers to a genuine and non-frivolous group of religious opinions, doctrines, and/or principles believed or accepted as true by a group of persons. This term includes a belief system that appears to be secular, but which nevertheless assumes the functional significance of a religion in the lives of a group of persons.

(4) Emblem of belief refers to an emblem that represents the belief system of the decedent. It does not include social, cultural, ethnic, fraternal, trade, professional, or military emblems, or any emblem that is obscene or would have an adverse impact on the dignity and solemnity of cemeteries honoring those who served the Nation.

I’ll assume two things about this text: the pejorative words are directed at Pagans, because Pagans are the ones causing trouble, and the words were chosen carefully to provide justification that decision-makers will need when denying a Pagan application.  They chose words they thought the vast majority of people would buy into when used to describe Pagans. 

I think it would be hard to accuse the pentacle of having an adverse impact on “dignity and solemnity”: it’s neither humorous nor obtrusively unlike all the other symbols.  It looks like the Star of David, for example.  Nor is it obscene, nor is it the emblem of a trade or professional organization. 

Instead it’s the word “frivolous” that sticks out for me.  I’m betting it’s the way that the good, godly, folk at the Veteran’s Administration are addressing us, and everyone else, about our religion.  

This is in some sense a theological challenge to our religion.  It is saying: “their beliefs are not made of study enough stuff to warrant our attention.”  So I claim that, in addition to legal and political responses, we need a theological answer.

There are many ways to read this word: as a word, as a token of a deeper desire to discriminate, and as a way others might see us. I’d like to take some time to explore and answer all of these ways of seeing.  Hopefully it will tell us something, something about ourselves, and something about those who would deny a dead soldier something so basic as his faith. 

Frivolous as a word

Frivolous is after all just a word.  A word the OED defines as:

Of little or no weight, value, or importance, paltry, trumpery, not worthy of serious attention, having no reasonable ground or purpose.[5]

Since the last clause, “having no reasonable ground or purpose” would apply to all religion, as religion is based on faith not reason, then the attack against us must be based on the other bits.[6]   Rule-makers in government do not like to make “value” judgments.  So I doubt that they would consider “little or no...value, or importance, paltry, trumpery” to be a criteria for excluding a religion.  Deciding something is not important or valuable suggests that individual judgment was used.  One of the primary purposes of bureaucracies is to at least give the appearance that individual judgment is not being exercised; so deciding on “value” would make everyone uncomfortable.  

Thus I suspect that the regulators are focused on “little or no weight” and “not worthy of serious attention.”  It is a waste of time, and thus a waste of resources, to even consider it.  “People” do not take it seriously, thus how can you ask us to take it seriously, as we have serious work to do.  People in government employ enjoy thinking of themselves as serious people doing serious work.  Calling us frivolous is quite consistent with the way they see themselves.

So what are they saying?  That Pagans are not worthy of serious attention, that we are not “serious?”  That the average Joe would not see us as taking what we do seriously?  

What elements of religion bespeak “serious”? 

Willingness to live and die for our religion? 

Would then Jim Jones’ and Heavens’ Gate qualify as “serious”?   I know of no Pagan who has had this proposition of dying for their religion put to them in recent years (other than some indigenous magical practitioners overseas), so its hard to judge the depth of modern neo-Paganism on the willingness of its practitioners to stand up and sacrifice their lives for their religion.  But I suspect that if such were to come, the strength of our beliefs might surprise everyone. 

Willingness to give up much for it? 

Here we clearly have some good examples.  From Priests and Priestesses who give their lives to the Goddess and the Gods, to individuals who have lost child custody battles, to kids who lose their families and friends when they come out of the broom closet, there are many neo-Pagans who sacrifice much for their beliefs.   We are often harassed, ostracized, and suffer the scorn of family and friends.  I’m not sure how much more can be given up by some in the Pagan community: wealth, time, family, friends, careers have all be sacrificed for our belief. 

A fixed infrastructure and clergy? 

In our society nothing says serious better than money.  Money buys churches, clergy, and “respectability.”  Money comes from the believers: the more money they have, the more money the church gets.  The richer parishioners also bring respectability and “gravitas” so important in Washington.  Modern neo-Paganism is almost exclusively a religion of the middle and lower-middle classes.  While there are exceptions, neo-Pagans are drawn primarily from the ranks of computer programmers, nurses, and teachers.[7]    There are few business owners,[8] doctors, lawyers, or politicians in neo-Paganism.[9]   This means less money for clergy, temples, and the buying of clout and respectability.  And it means fewer members who can call and chat up a Senator.  Lack of money and clout may not mean we’re frivolous, but it makes it easier to say we are.

A stately and pinched demeanor? 

Perhaps to be considered a religion you have to be unhappy.  Looking at a lot of the Christian churches you’d certainly think it was that way.    You can’t take yourselves lightly, and tread lightly on the planet and community?  You can’t laugh at yourself?  Where I’m from in DC, and where the people making this decision live, people take themselves very seriously.  Running around in big cars, over scheduling everything, never seeing their families, and generally not having much real fun.  Pagans can be said to be guilty of having fun in their religion, but fun should not be taken as lack of being serious. 

We are guilty of being able to laugh at ourselves. 

However we are a religion of deep belief, one that requires much sacrifice and risk from those who believe.  You have to actively seek out a Pagan group.  You have to study and learn because you most likely didn’t learn the religion from your parents, and you have to accept that you will be an outcast for what you believe.  This is not a path undertaken lightly, nor one that can come from anywhere but a deep and religious experience of the Gods and Goddesses.  Without that experience you would simply give up when facing such obstacles.  Most don’t.  Most continue and grow as Pagans.  Thus I claim we have weight, we have gravitas, and we are deeply serious about the Pagan faith. 

We are anything but “frivolous.”

Frivolous as a reflection of a desire to discriminate

Another way to look at this is that no one at VA really read the definition of “frivolous” and instead just picked it randomly.[10]   What, then, were they up to?

Powerful, self-confident, people who are at the same time terribly worried about their position and place in society seem to gravitate toward a bullying sort of behavior.  You see this in almost every sort of human organization, from high school to your circle of friends. 

So we can interpret the use of “frivolous” by a government organization as being a put-down, one that they expect people will accept and agree with.  It’s a way to say “I am more powerful than you, and because of that I will use a diminutive term for you.”  By diminishing us, it’s easier to dismiss us.  By diminishing us, it’s easier to convince others we are small. 

Apparently Bush does this all the time, concocting nicknames for people.[11]    Since the guy at the top calls someone with nuclear weapons “Mr. Pootie Poot,”[12] perhaps the guys at Veteran’s are just following the leader.  Which, again, is typical dominance behavior: looking to the leader for justification of violence and discrimination. 

Unfortunately we don’t get to graduate from this high school and go to a place where people behave themselves. 

So one way to read this is a simple assertion of power, a way to claim the high ground and “put us down.”  There is only one way to deal with bullies, gather a crowd, and everyone stand up to them.  That is exactly what is being done; those involved are not giving in, and are standing up in public and in court.

But there is another way to stand up. 

Since we can’t gather much of a crowd (electorally speaking) what we can do is call it out.  We are being bullied.  We can proclaim and denounce this behavior for what it is:  one religious orientation (fundamental Christianity) trying to bully (oppress would be giving them too much credit) another religion.  They are kicking sand at us, and it’s important we tell people what they are doing. 

But there is still yet another way.

They are bullying us because we threaten them.  We threaten them because their children are drawn to Paganism more readily than to their own fathers’ religion.  We threaten them because our beliefs could save the world instead of sacrificing it on the altars of greed and end-times panic.  We threaten them because we represent a way of living that presents a real difference spiritually, politically, and economically from the way people live now.  And, since many people’s lives suck, and their religion is often the veneer that prevents them from realizing just how badly it sucks, perhaps the proclamation of the Pagan way is more threatening to their beliefs than either they, or we, realize. 

Perhaps this means we should proclaim who and what we are.  As loudly and strongly as we can.  We should make an offer of a real alternative, as many have already begun to do. [13]

Frivolous as a way to marginalize

Bullying, and discrimination in its many forms, needs to marginalize the victims.  You aren’t like us.  You aren’t human like us.  You are weird.  So it’s OK to pick on you. 

Frivolous implies that it’s not serious.  Its funny and campy, something that the serious-minded needn’t worry about.  It puts us far, far away from the high dungeon of the Catholic or Episcopalian Churches.  We are religion “light,” one that does not come with the serious, solemn, and difficult commitments of other religions. 

We will eventually come to our senses.

If a religion is frivolous because its a freely chosen faith, as opposed to one you are raised in, then a whole bunch of other religions that have a symbol on the headstone will need to go.  Eckankar, atheism, and humanism in particular are religions I would assume most come to later in life.  But they all have headstone symbols. 

If a religion is frivolous because it is easy to join, and easy to leave, then most religions would qualify.  And whoever said Paganism was easy to enter into?  Many Pagan traditions believe that you need to be called, and found, by those who will teach you.  When the time is right you will encounter a coven and enter into the craft.  And then there are the initiations required in many traditions.  Not many religions require studying for a year and a day before you can even be considered a member. 

The only way frivolous would apply to us was if it meant, “requires hard, serious, work to enter into.”

Frivolous as a reflection of ourselves

When the bullies try to pick on us, its important, I believe, to ask if we’re doing anything to attract them. 

A facile response to being called “frivolous” would say, “of course we’re frivolous” we don’t take ourselves as seriously as you do yourselves, and we have a place for joy, laughter, pranks, and naughtiness in our religion.  Thanks for the compliment. 

That would be one way to read this.

Another way to read the word is that we don’t fit in.  We don’t fit in with the guys wearing green golf shirts, slapping each other on the back, dropping a few grand for a golf vacation to get away from the wife and three kids back at the MacMansion.  We don’t get it, perhaps deliberately.  We’re not participating.  And for that reason Biff and Bobby and the guys at the club can single us out as someone who can be put down. 

I would argue that, for some set of Pagans, this is not an entirely unfair characterization.  Being different is also a way to defend oneself against the very bullys and cretins who run the country clubs and exclude those who don’t fit in.   We travel in circles that, for adults, are not given the moniker of serious endeavor by the larger society.  Role players, SCA’ers, filker’s, science fiction readers and (Gods help us) Science-Fiction convention-goers are not quite the mainstream. [14]

I believe that there are two strong answers to this criticism.

First, the perception that those on the margins of behavior are somehow less deserving of consideration, respect, or humanity is not supported by any reasonable argument.  In fact most religions, and most ethical systems, would say that the marginal have a greater claim on society than those who are in charge and better off.  It is, again, a form a bullying to pick on those who are “different” in order to justify your own position in society.

But I think there is another part to this argument.  There is also not much rational support for the contention that the way the vast majority of those on top of the social heap live creates more happiness, fulfillment, or whole-life success than those who are “odd” and pursue hobbies or interests divergent from the rest of society.  In other words: I think the role-players, SCA’ers, and Pagans are probably a lot happier than the other guys.  Nor are those on the social margins any less self-absorbed and inconsiderate of suffering than those in the mainstream.  I’d guess that they are actually less self-absorbed than the mainstream. 

I would argue that those with divergent interests, while they may not command as many resources as the elite groups, do far less harm than those on top.  They use fewer resources, oppress fewer people, and commit violence and destructive behavior with much less frequency.  This is an even stronger argument if you throw in the organized, collective, forms of mischief supported by those on top, such as war, pollution, and economic oppression.

Just because we’re different does not mean we’re losers.  We may, in fact, have a better life than many of those who are “winners.” 

On the other hand those who flaunt our religion in order to give themselves a false sense of position, importance, or esteem need to be addressed.  We should not be a religion that fulfills peoples need to create a place where they can imagine themselves to be powerful, important, or justified when they are not.  Paganism is not a role-playing game.  It should not be an escape from the world. 

To use any Pagan path in that way is a false use of religion, an apostasy that I believe does occur in the modern Pagan movement.  It is false because it makes the believer, and the faith, into an instrument.  It makes religion into an object, a tool that will be used to fulfill the believer’s ego and need for self-fulfillment.  That is not religion: it is fantasy.

Magic works best when it is not spoken of.  The Gardnarians and Alexandrians have an important contribution to make:  silence.  Silence begets humility, and ensures that motivation is not self-centric, but Goddess and God centric.   Not silence about faith, but silence about self, about ego.   We should speak out loudly and strongly, but about our beliefs and not about ourselves. 

I believe that those who enter our religion for ego gratification can be held against us.  They can be seen as frivolous, because, in fact, they are frivolous.  They are using our religion for things that are not of the spirit, but of the world. 

However, if we are going to stereotype religions based on the behavior of a subset of their worshipers, then we are going to have a long discussion about the big three religions.  Simply because a faith draws to a specific demographic, for example people named Biff and Episcopalians, does not necessarily mean that the faith cannot be a source of truth, inspiration, and spiritual depth.   Jesus was poor, an outcast who died on the cross.  He didn’t (as far as we know) play golf. 

What to make of all this? 

They are going to label us as frivolous in order to try and marginalize us and bully us off the stage.  Our best option is to speak out about this bullying.  To label it for what it is.  And as we do we should look to our own faith, to our own hearts, and seek to ensure that we are focused on the Gods and Goddesses and connecting with them and each other through ritual, magic, service, and love.  That focus will lead to behavior and action that will show everyone just how serious we are.  We can speak truly and strongly about the depth of our beliefs. Our actions will show just how weighty our faith is.  And, ultimately, hopefully, lead others to think about what they mean by serious, what the hard faces they wear will do to them, and come join us in our faithful frivolity. 

And in the end we may need to discover an important truth we have been missing all long:  our faith may represent an alternative way of seeing the world, and in turn may threaten the very foundations of beliefs and faiths based on holy scripture.  We may find that we own a belief that is stronger than any of us imagine. 

 

[1] R. Joseph Hoffmann, Porphyry’s Against the Christians:  The Literary Remains, Prometheus: New York, 1994.

[2] For more information than you even wanted to know about this issue go here; http://www.circlesanctuary.org/liberty/veteranpentacle/

[3] http://www.circlesanctuary.org/liberty/veteranpentacle/VARuleComment.htm

[4] 38 CFR Part 38.632 Headstone and marker application process.  Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1987.

[6] You could easily accuse me of overstating both the intelligence and finesse of our opponents, and you’d probably be right.  I’m sure they have not analyzed things this way, they just assume everyone would agree with them.  I’m interested in exploring why everyone would agree with them. 

[7] What surveys that have been done are pretty consistent on this point.  See the surveys in Margot Adler, Drawing Down the Moon, Beacon Press: Boston, 1986.  Helen A. Berger, Evan A. Leach, and Leigh S. Shaffer, Voices from the Pagan Census, University of South Carolina Press:  Columbia, 2003.

[8] I mean steel, concrete, and computer businesses, not bookstore, coffee shop, or wellness center businesses.  “Serious” businesses.

[9] I said “few,” I’m sure there are “some.” 

[10] I suspect this is actually the case. 

[11] New York Magazine, “Mr. Pootie Poot, The president’s on the line…”
A Dubya Decoder, http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/rnc/9719/

[12] Vladimir Putin, Rove is “Turd Blossom,”

[13] Witness Starhawk’s pioneering work on social activism, along with the work of many, many other Pagans committed to social action.  However, for me there is more here than social action: something less than proselytization but more than the relatively quiet worship that exists now.  An assertive speaking out on behalf of the Gods and Goddesses, perhaps. 

[14] I freely admit to fitting into not only one of these categories, but also one that is weird even for Pagans:  wargamer.   

 

 

 

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