Material Devotion

Every religious behaviour comes with a cost to it, sooner or later. And by that I mean spending your own money towards it. Those raised in a Christian church will be familiar with the weekly offerings. Well, I’m talking about more than that.

Being part of a community of any sort requires more than your time and presence. At the very least, you’ve almost certainly spent money just getting there. Even if it’s just shoe-leather. But participation usually requires more than that. You might need to buy a book for a book club, or invest in sporting equipment.

Churches often have events where those participating need to bring their own resources. It might be a paid event, like a dinner, or it might be your own tools, like a working bee. For those a bit more involved, you might be making a significant purchase. I bought a $700 synthesizor a number of years ago for helping me play music in church.

This is not unique to churches. My Pagan circle requests attendees bring suitable craft supplies to both the Beltane and the Samhain events. Sometimes things are requested for a full moon circle, too. And personal altar work requires material investment.

I don’t mind but it did set me thinking. I’ve blogged before about the art and craft skills I’ve resurrected in the service of being pagan. And truth be told, I really don’t mind. There is something satisfying in creating with your hands after all. It’s easy to get resentful at the frequent small outlays, but I think I know where that comes from. Looking back at my years in the church, though, and I get the feeling that most church-goers would rather not bring anything beyond their time and presence. So my outlay on musical instrumentation was rather extraordinary. But it wasn’t under duress, either: it was an expense I willingly paid for. Compared to my Pagan craft supplies, it is considerable, but then it is useful over a lot longer period, too.

So it all balances out, really,


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The Learning Of Knowledge

I wonder how much organised religion relies on not teaching things.

Us humans are awesome learners. We kind of have to be. Amongst all of the creatures placed upon this planet, we are born with the least amount of survival instincts, have the longest childhood and the most to learn to become a functioning adult. In short, we have to learn how to be a human being. This is unlike my cat, who was born with a raft of instincts peculiar and specific to her species. She doesn’t have to learn how to be a cat – just how to live in the world whilst being a cat, including living with me.

We also like to have some rules of society to follow, especially to interact with fellow humans. We don’t like all of them, but we know we need them. Things like what side of the road everyone should drive on, or how money works. Even language is one of those kinds of rules. Religion has also always been about rules. What you need to do or say to the gods so the river floods this year. What to wear when you visit a sacred space. Even what to think about those dastardly people in the next valley who everyone wished were a bit darker so they weren’t quite so similar looking to you and your neighbours.

The thing about rules, though, is that they usually require a ruler. Or at least a proxy. Kings, Emperors, Presidents. Barons, Dukes. Priests. They may not always like to admit it, but priests are – by definition – a proxy between the gods and the people. They carry messages from the people to the gods and messages from the gods to the people. Sometimes the latter are stories and that is where religions teach. Such teaching can range from how to respect the gods, all the way up to how the world is because The Gods Said So. Which means the latter becomes a problem when the world starts disagreeing,

I like learning about the world and have been doing that for many years, often by reading books. The latest is one written as a story set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, with fiction by Terry interspersed with real science narrated by scientists Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart in a down-to-earth, chatty style. This is the fourth book that has been done like this, and they cover a lot of science. This latest one talks a lot about sciences often given little time in the mainstream, such as anthropology. It also wanders through some of the latest theories in biochemistry, too, like some possible scenarios about quite how some reasonably simple molecules could be self-organising enough to form the machinery of DNA. It’s complicated but it’s the sort of thing that us humans are driven to ask questions about.

Except when we’re not. And that brings us back to religion again.

Most Christian church-based teaching assumes and therefore teaches that the Bible is more-or-less accurate. This includes firm belief that there was a Noah, an ark and a flood, that Moses did indeed lead the children of Israel across Sinai, and so on and so forth. The church also reaps the products of a long line of thinkers and politicians, ranging from Augustine and Constantine to people like C. S. Lewis and N. T. Wright. And then neglects to teach the flock about them. That creates a vast body of dogma that pretty much has all the same provenance. That makes it difficult to question bits because a common reaction is to state that you’re questioning it all.

One of the reasons I left my church was because I’d run out of things for them to teach me. It took me many years to do that and I only really noticed it when I found ways other than the Sunday morning sermon to learn about my religion and its sacred books. But I was learning things that weren’t getting taught at church. Things the congregation had carefully been taught not to look for. History, scholarship and critical thinking. The experience reminds me of the old saying about when is the apprentice ready to leave master.

It was obvious when I suddenly realized the weekly sermon was repeating teaching I’d heard several times before over the decades. It got especially obvious when my Bible Study wanted to study the book of Jeremiah “directly”, which meant a) without a study guide and b) without any other literature. I wanted to explore the history of when and why it was written and what else was happening in Judah at the time. Everyone else was content to re-inforce what they already knew about the book.

So I left.

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A Chance Meeting

For no reason I could solidly articulate, I decided to go back to my old church this morning to visit.

Despite being arguably more Pagan than Christian now, and taken deliberate steps away from Evangelical Churchianity, I still miss some aspects of church-based life. This is why I still occasionally visit a few churches, including my sister’s church. And my own former church.

I did kind of wonder at my own presence. No-one there really knows why I left. A very small number of people have a little bit of an idea, but most do not and are not interested enough to come ask. What makes a bit more complicated was that this church is currently in the long and very slow process of merging with another church, one that I also have a few friends at from my previous Christian life. And this morning happened to be a combined service, which was definitely a happy accident.

Churches merging is unusual and I’m kind of glad people in both churches know this. Normally merges happen when two churches get too small to be viable. I don’t think this is happening to either of them, but I do remember when one of them was briefly large enough to consider two morning services. In fact, it is more common for churches to split, often over either doctrine or personality. Or both.

But I didn’t necessarily want to blog about that. Because I also happened to encounter an old friend who I lost track of years ago – he didn’t really attend either church, but he was in my bible study and we got to know each other during that time. And he was there today.

One thing Pagans are aware of is synchronicity. This is where events happen that seem to be guided by supernatural forces. Christians tend to call this “God’s hand”. But whatever it is, it happened today to me.

It was right as I was leaving and had actually stepped off the church property. This old friend didn’t seem totally sure I would recognise him, but I did. It was quickly apparent he did not know my recent history. In fact, he did not know I had had a failed marriage behind me. But in explaining what followed he mentioned the phrase “a personal journey”. And then he said “are you spiritual than religious”, clearly expecting a “yes”. And then he said he’d recently been in Tibet, which is a highly spiritual land.

That’s when I recognised the synchronicity. This was the first person in months from my former Christian circles I could begin to tell that I was “less Christian than I used to be”. I was meant to find him today. All the doubt about putting my toes back into the church evaporated. All the shenanigans of setting up my whole weekend so that I could be there on time this morning all felt worth it. He even understood the problem of not being able to take someone along with me on such a journey. (I’ve posted before about this: another person still firmly inside a way of thinking will likely not understand your journey because they’re not asking the same questions as you are.)

If anything, this was a confirmation that whilst my journey is my journey, many others have been down similar paths. And the really interesting thing about striking out on your own spiritual path is that when you start talking about it, it is those who have also done this that you get the recognition and encouragement from.

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Where there’s a Wiccan

I had the beginnings of an interesting discussion with a friend the other day. It was about Wicca and what Wiccans believe in.  Not surprisingly, that set me thinking about what I believe in.

This is not the first time I’ve asked myself about this and not the first time since I’ve begun calling myself Wiccan. But only a few days ago, I came across a piece describing the Horned God. It was a totally brilliant description that I cannot summarise with any justice here. But one of the key points were that the Horned God is a healthy male role model, properly integrated with the religion belief system surrounding Him. This is most unlike the image of God (Yahweh) and Jesus that the Christian Church promulgates. If anything, the latter is a forlorn image of a strongly patriarchal system..

That’s not who I set out to find.

My spiritual journey is taking me further and further away from where the Church is squatting. I’ve already found a Yahweh out here that is not like the one I left behind – the one I couldn’t get close to. And in a recent Kabbalistic meditation, whilst most in our group got difficult to understand messages, mine was one of overwhelming rightness. I’m on the right path, and I’m in the correct place.

In a few months, I get to run a meditation myself with the help of a fellow pagan. I probably don’t need to think about it so soon but doing so is helping me pay attention to the other meditations being put together. It is also helping me think through my own beliefs. My journey into Paganism has been one of wondering where I’m going. The searching has been somewhat casual, I’ll admit. But that doesn’t mean I’ve taken things lightly. I’ve doubted a few times if Wicca is for me. And then I see a new angle, and it makes sense again. I’m getting used to the cycle of the moon and the cycle of the year, so much so I didn’t realize last Sunday was Palm Sunday – but to a Wiccan that has no meaning. I feel a spiritual connection to the land I live in, but only as a long-term visitor. The indigenous spirituality doesn’t work for me, and yet I can respect it and respect the honouring of it. Instead, I feel a connection to a more European earth-based version, but as borrowed for here. Whatever that really means.

I’m still feeling my way forward, after all.

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Faith versus action

I came across an article the other day on the web about how evangelical churches behave a particular way. Or rather, why their attendees behave that way. I’ve been taught evangelical Christianity practically all my life, so you would think I know it inside out. But years of living in it does not deconstruct easily or quickly and it is easy to overlook details that can be important.

One of the facts that modern evangelical Christianity teaches is that believers are saved by faith and not by works. In the surface this is part of the teaching that you don’t earn your salvation, it is yours for the asking. Sometimes it is contrasted with other spiritual paths where salvation or the equivalent is earnt by one’s actions.

There is a lot of teaching by churches of many stripes down through the centuries that rest on history. The quirk of this is that the history behind certain pieces of doctrine are easily lost and rarely taught. Without realizing it, there is a piece of context lost and it is often difficult to even tell it is missing. For converts to Christianity who have been raised in another faith, the inversion of the relationship of grace and works would be novel. It would also not need explaining – it is a concept that would be understood properly. It has the correct context.

I’m guessing of course. Like I said, I was raised a Christian. And one side-effect of being raised in this doctrine is that creates a disconnect between earthly behaviour and heavenly rewards. And one thing I am learning in my journey into Paganism is that maybe that’s not a good thing.

The article I mentioned at the start talks about how badly evangelical Christians can behave towards those who have left their church and their religion. Because they can. The disconnect between having a faith and being accountable for your actions in the name of that faith mean that bad-mouthing such people is not seen as a bad thing.

Yet it should be.

Once upon a time I thought like that. For a long time, in fact. I would like to think I never behaved as badly as the church-goers in that article, though, who criticised the author’s lack of faith to his own daughter behind his back. But I can see this is a valid course of action defined by the twin aspects of “saved by grace, not works” and “make disciples of all the nations”. It shouldn’t be a valid outcome, but it is.

Now, though? I can’t say “saved by works” because that’s not how Wicca is structured. In fact, the two alternatives don’t even make sense in Wicca, partly because the natural response to either choice is “saved from what?”

Saved from what, indeed. We need to be saved from such thinking. And then we need to do some saving of our own. Like the planet. It’s our only home, after all, and we’re killing it.

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You never really know what a meditation is going to show you, especially when it’s pretty open. We were guided into an Egyptian temple, and then left to explore on our own. Would we see things to read? Would we meet gods? If so, who? And what would they say to use?

I found a picture on the floor: one of a green forest. I’m not sure if it was English or Australian, but it was thick and dense. And when I stepped towards it, I discovered it was actually a pool of (black) water that was reflecting the ceiling.

As well as the green forest, I was reminded of the dragon that pounced on me during the dragon attunement the other week. Whilst he or she isn’t green, where it landed was on the green chakra.

I was also given the image of a green gem stone as a pendant. I feel like this is to replace my world tree pendant, which has lost a lot of its plating. And that was when I was reminded I have a new tree to find.

I don’t understand my journey. I rarely meet any gods or goddesses in the circle meditation. Or rather, I haven’t recently. Yahweh, or some version of him, sent me out into this weird world of spirituality without him. Whilst it was a nice surprise to encounter him a few times out here, I get the feeling that I’m not going to meet him again for some time. But instead there’s someone else to meet. I just have to find them. And the colour green is part of that journey.

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We finally did our first group meditation with the Kabbalah tonight. Quite different from the previous events, and yet not all that much. We still opened the circle and we still called in the quarters, but the meditation was something else.

It was a lot mysterious, but then, that’s both kind of the point and also a side-effect of so much to learn and explore so just where do you start. Our learned friend started with the sphere of Kether, which is the top-most emanation of the Tree of Life and central to a fairly straightforward meditation called The Middle Pillar.

Not surprisingly, in the guided meditation we met a god. In this case it was the creator-god, a kind of over-god over, above and outside the cosmos, and yet still a part of it and of each and every one of us. Sound familiar? Well, a lot of religions have used this idea down through the millenia.

My own experience of this over-god was one of enormous immensity. It was all I could do to see the size of the palm of his hand.

And yet there wasn’t a sense of shock or awe at this. If anything, it was a statement of being: a Just Is moment, if you will.

And that was kind of comforting.

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