O is for Omniverse

As Naturalistic Pantheists we see the universe as “god”. But we are also completely supportive of science and must adapt our spirituality to scientific advances. With more and more scientists becoming open to the idea that there might be more than one universe, where does that leave us? “Pan” means all…but what if the universe isn’t all?

The idea of parallel universes is both awe inspiring and scary. It destroys yet more of our self importance about living in the “only universe” but it also opens up many new and exciting possibilities. It answers the very puzzling question of why our particular universe seems so fine tuned for life. If we look at the insights of string theory and other cutting edge scientific theories, which suggest there are more than one universe, we need to be updating our spirituality to meet this need.

This is where the concept of the “Omniverse” comes in. Omni means “all of existence.” It’s encompasses not just this universe but any others that might exist and anything outside of them. As Pantheists, it is not difficult to simply change from saying “the universe is divine” to “the Omniverse is divine”. This is one of the greatest advantages of Naturalistic Pantheist Spirituality, we can adapt as science does. For more information on the Omniverse, check out the Pantheism Today blog.

A few other interesting points – some scientists are hypothesising that the universe could even “give birth” to child universes through black holes. Perhaps universes evolve. None if this is proven but its an intriguing concept.

The other issue I’d like to raise is the issue of the Otherworld. Making a wild assumption that perhaps religions are right about some kind of otherworldly beings existing and somehow interacting with this universe, it would not be far-fetched to believe they were part of some alternative dimension/ universe that somehow is entwined with our own. Just a thought.

N is for Neopagan Narcissism

So this post is going to be a little controversial. I’ve been watching with amazement the arguments going on in the pagan blogosphere over the past few months about defining what paganism is and who is and isn’t a pagan, about what labels people want to use for themselves and so on. Now while deities are an important part of a lot of people’s definitions of paganism, the fact that non theists are beginning to get involved seems to have sent a few polytheists off in a huff. What’s worse is that some of the hard polytheists seem to have decided that not even soft polytheists can be part of their religion. I think they should be ashamed of themselves. Paganism has an attraction to people because there is minimal dogma, its focused more on what we do rather than what we believe, and its supposed to prize tolerance and inclusiveness. If the pagan community degenerates into fundamentalism it will end up destroying itself and that would be a very bad thing when paganism offers us a way forward in changing hearts and minds in the battle to save the earth.

Then we come to embarrassment. This is more prevalent for those who have the least supernatural beliefs…many seem to be embarrassed to call themselves Pagans because of the “woo.” Now I don’t know what “woo” is but it seems to be something along the lines of belief in energies, magic and so on. But I really don’t think that’s what people associate the image of pagan with. Unless they’re monotheistic fundamentalists, most people who think of the word pagan think one thing – hippy! They see pagans as people interested in looking after the earth, in hugging trees and so on. Yes there’s a lot more to paganism than that, but I don’t think we should be embarrassed to call ourselves pagan when the image is of someone who is serious about looking after the beautiful world we live in.

Now, rant mostly over, this post is going to be about how I see paganism. I love John Halstead’s view of paganism as being the interaction of three spheres – earth-centered paganism that focuses on honouring nature, self-centered paganism which focuses on personal growth and our inner lives, and deity-centered paganism which focuses on honouring the gods and spirits. Another definition of paganism I like is Graham Harvey’s, who said a Pagan was “someone who belonged, someone who celebrated where they lived, someone who knew their local shrines, springs, hills, trees and neighbours and could trace their descent from local ancestors.” Paganism to me is about honouring and revering nature, its about being bio-regional – focusing on the local area, local gods and spirits, local ancestors, local plants and animals, its about connecting with the land we live on and with all those we share the place with. Paganism is inspired by pre Judeo-Christian and non Judeo-Christian religions and seeks to learn from these in creating new religions for the modern world…because ultimately that is what we are doing, whether reconstructionist, eclectic or whatever, we are creating new religions not following an ancient one (no matter how much people may protest)…and that is fine. Mankind has created new religions many times and some have lasted millenia while others a few decades. Paganism is about the search for connection with that which is greater than us – whether that be the nature, community, the unconscious or some kind of deity. What ultimately matters in religious terms is – does it help us find and make that connection.

It’s time for the pagan blogosphere community to stop arguing over definitions, start accepting each other, focus on the local and to be proud of being Neopagans!

M is for Meditation

I have been meaning to do a post on Meditation for a while so as its the letter M this week in the pagan blog project, I thought I’d write about it. Meditation is a practice of training our minds. It is often associated with eastern religions, especially Buddhism, however it can be found in western religious and philosophical practice as well. Many people throughout the world and regardless of religion practice some form of meditation and do so for many different reasons. Some do it for religious reasons like seeking enlightenment, others to help reduce stress or become calm and others as a form of mind training. It is known to bring very positive benefits for health when practised consistently and scientific research on the brain suggests that it can make one happier and much more compassionate.

Meditation

Meditation (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn

The benefits of meditation can include relaxation, a clear mind, more focus and concentration, better memory, better regulation of emotions, less anxiety, more compassion, fewer mental health issues, better sleep, better immune system, lower blood pressure and much more. It is also useful for helping us analyse ourselves.

Meditation is not about emptying the mind, though it will become quieter with practice, it is about developing focus and awareness of the present moment. There are many different types of meditation including meditation where one focuses on the breath, meditation using a mantra, visualisation meditations or moving meditation e.g. tai chi. It can also be used as a form of contemplation – focusing on particular facts and considering them deeply.

I have to admit that I am very bad at keeping a regular meditation schedule but I try to do it at least one a week. But for positive effects, it needs to be done on a daily basis. One of the best forms of meditation, one that has been studied and proven to be very beneficial is the Buddhist Metta Meditation. This is designed to develop compassion and loving kindness in people and has been shown by neuroscientists to be effective at doing so after only eight weeks of daily meditation. I would highly recommend using it in your meditation practices. Below is a video of it…

As Naturalistic Pantheists, there are many reasons for us to take up meditation – the health benefits, developing a calm and compassionate mind so we can become better people and because of its ability to develop more mindfulness and awareness of the world around us so we can appreciate nature. What other reasons can you think of for why Naturalistic Pantheist might consider meditation and important spiritual practice?

L is for Life Rites

Life Rites or Rites of Passage are a key part of every culture and religion and they evidently fulfil a psychological need within us. From rites at birth which make a child a member of the community to rites at death that allow people to say goodbye to loved ones, Naturalistic Pantheism needs to meet these needs to. There are three main Life Rites – Birth, Marriage and Death but others including the onset of puberty or adulthood and entry to old age could include Life Rite ceremonies too. These are some of my preliminary thoughts and suggestions for what could be involved….

Birth – From a Naturalistic Pantheist perspective, I would suggest the following Life Rite for a new child. On the first of the 8 festivals after their birth, the family and friends gather in a place in nature. There will be a ceremony in which the child and parents are blessed by the community and acknowledged as part of the community of both humanity and all life. At this ceremony the parents will announce the name of the child and dedicate them to the service of all life. Finally, a tree should be planted representing hope for a long life for the child. There should be celebrating, dancing and a big feast.

Marriage – I would suggest that the Marriage Life Rite include a hand-fasting ceremony out in nature, including the normal exchange of rings and vows written by the couple, lots of partying and a feast with friends and family. Like the new birth rite, it should be done on one of the eight festivals if possible. The marriage rite should be open to both opposite and same sex couples.

Death – The Naturalistic Pantheist supports a natural green burial, which does no damage to the environment. Perhaps the person could be buried under the tree which was planted at their birth or, if possible, on land they own e.g garden. It should involve a family gathering, feasting, poetry/ song and tributes to the person. It should be a time to give thanks for the persons life, be a memorial to them and to remember that every atom of their body will be reincarnated into other things by nature. Their picture should be installed on the ancestor altar in the home of those who knew the person and especially of the direct family.

What do you think? How do you think life rites should be celebrated? Are there others you’d include?

K is for Kindness

Kindness. Treating people nicely. We all want to be treated in a kind way. We all feel good when we are kind to others. We revere those in society who epitomise kindness like Mother Teresa. Kindness, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, hospitality, caring – these are all words meaning the same thing – treat others as you’d have them treat you. It’s the key teaching behind of every world religion and if everyone in the world was always kind, we’d live in a much better place. We can be kind to humans, we can be kind to animals, we can be kind to all life. Kind people are happier and better liked by others. Kindness.

A few years ago I watched a film called “Pay It Forward.” It’s a brilliant film that I would recommend everyone watches. The young boy in it develops a scheme called pay it forward where he does something good for someone and rather than ask for anything in return he requests that they do three good deeds for others and similarly request those to “pay it forward.” His dream is of a world where everyone does kind deeds and helps others. Yes it may sound utopian, but is it really that hard to just do three kind things for people and ask them to do the same?

Consider the words of these great thinkers –

“You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward” – Lily Hardy Hammond

“In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody.” – Henry David Thoreau

What if every time we lent money to someone, we requested that instead of paying us back, they pay it forward?

Did you know there is actually an international pay it forward day (next year its April 24th)? Surely it can’t be that difficult to spend one day a year doing lots of good for others?

Have you ever read the book “Join Me” by Danny Wallace? It’s a very funny real life story where he put an advert in the paper simply saying “join me” and people did. Eventually he decided he needed to come up with something for people who joined him to do and so was born the Karma Army. The idea is that each person does one good random act of kindness every Friday and in that way tries to make the world a better place. You can find out more about this movement at Join Me.

So what about you? Do you ever do random acts of kindness for people? Do you take part in Pay It Forward Day? What could you do in your community to encourage more kindness among everyone, to renew the connections of neighbourliness and humanity? How are you making yourself accountable so you’ll actually do it? Be inspired! K is for Kindness.

K is for Kong Qiu

Konfuzius, Confucius

Konfuzius, Confucius (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kong Qiu, better known in the west as Confucius, was an ancient Chinese philosopher who’s teachings and ideas revolutionised China and are still a vital part of most of the cultures of the far east today. Confucius was born in 551BCE during the time of the warring states when China was in social chaos. His father died when he was young so he was raised by his mother. He went into politics and became very well respected but his ideas also made him many powerful enemies and eventually he was forced into exile. He spent many years travelling around the states of China teaching and gathering disciples until he was eventually allowed to return home as an old man. At his death he considered himself a failure, however his influence was so strong that it can still be seen in the attitudes, cultures and values of a quarter of the worlds population in countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan and more.

Confucius’ teaching may appeal to us today because its core is Humanism. Confucius was not really interested in metaphysics or speculation about the supernatural. His interest was in the world of the human, of society and his focus was on human interactions. In a time of so much chaos, he dreamed of a society of social harmony. He made the secular sacred.

Confucius’ focused on five relationships – the relationships between ruler and ruled, father and son, husband and wife, elder brother to young brother and between friend and friend. He taught that if these relationships were right, if everyone accepted their place in the social order and behaved accordingly, then there would be social harmony. This led him to develop five principles for how people should act towards one another – Ren (benevolence), Yi (righteousness/ justice), Li (etiquette/ propriety), Zhi (knowledge/ wisdom), Xin (integrity). Interestingly, he was the first person to come up with the golden rule (6 centuries before Jesus) of “treat others as you’d want to be treated” i.e. benevolence.

Li, or etiquette/ courtesy, was central for Confucius. He believed that one showed Li through ritual and that ritual was vital to creating a harmonious society. Ritual developed reverence for others, it developed good manners and it developed personal morality. Ritual helps people to overcome selfish desires and focus on the needs of others. By ritual, he meant acts of reverence and respect in our everyday lives. For example, saying please and thank you, bowing when greeting or leaving someone and so on. Filial Piety was a very important part of his teaching concerning the relationship between father and son, and veneration of ancestors at a home altar, along with respect for the wisdom of the aged, were key rituals in this relationship. For Confucius, the family home was sacred and was the centre of ritual – if it was in order, society would be in order.

Confucius was very involved in politics and taught the children of many rulers. He emphasised the importance of ritual in this too. He argued that good government was when you ruled through ritual and example rather than through laws and the threat of punishment. If the ruler set a good moral example, the people would follow. If they didn’t act morally then society would descend into chaos and the people had a right to overthrow the ruler. To govern others, Confucius believed that one must first govern themselves. He was a firm believer in meritocracy and argued that meritocracy not accident of birth should decide one’s station in life. This later led Chinese emperors to institute exams and tests for their civil service to ensure the best people became ministers.

Confucius had another reason for supporting education – he believed that it was through education that people became better – they developed knowledge of ritual and how to cultivate themselves morally. For Confucius, people’s aim in life should be to become like a sage (similar to the Victorian image of the English gentleman). They should cultivate themselves morally, show filial piety and loyalty and cultivate benevolence towards others. They should seek knowledge and study so they can become a better person. In other words – the aim in life was to cultivate your character to become the best you could be. This would happen through education, ritual, mindfulness and self examination.

Unfortunately, there are some criticisms to make of Confucianism. The philosophy was developed in an age of kings and emperors so there is little focus on democracy or equality. It has consistently been used to promote authoritarian and patriarchal values against democratic values or equality. Confucius taught that women should obey their husbands and so I don’t think feminists would take too kindly to his ideas. However, most Confucian societies have now become democracies which suggests that it can be adapted to fit western ideas. Their focus on communitarian rather than individualistic values makes them some of the safest and most respectful societies around. When I look at western civilisation today, I wonder whether we need a modern day Confucius, or someone to adapt his philosophy to the modern world so we too can become a lot safer and respectful.

From a personal and humanistic perspective, I think Confucius was onto something in the methods he suggested for creating a more moral society. I think making our aim in life to cultivate our characters to become the best we can be is a very valid purpose in life for a Naturalistic Pantheist, although I would argue that it needs to be related to trying to live in harmony with the world around us – human and nature. I think we can learn from his emphasis on ancestor veneration – that it develops within us reverence and respect for others. I think we can realise that ritual doesn’t have to mean grand ceremonies at the eight festivals of the year but also means small daily acts of respect. I think we can learn to develop our characters through educating ourselves, doing meditation to become more mindful, using methods of self examination from Stoicism and making sure we always show courtesy and respect to those around us. What do you think of Confucius’ ideas? Is there anything you can learn from them?

J is for Jesus

English: Resurrection of Christ

Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who is Jesus? What did he do? How does a Naturalistic Pantheist view him? Last week I wrote about my journey away from Christianity and now I want to explain how I see the man at the centre of that religion and who’s teachings guided my life for a decade.

Lets start with how I think his original followers would have viewed him. It is a fact that Jesus never actually claimed to be God. The closest he came was suggesting he was chosen by God. He consistently called himself the Son of Man and now and again Son of God. The fact is that Jesus was a Jewish man and to claim to be God would have caused even his followers to consider him a blasphemer. If you read the book of Acts it records that the disciples saw Jesus as “a man chosen and exalted by God.” He is a human being chosen by God to die and then rise again. He is chosen to rule over the universe until the end of time when he hands it all back to God. He is seen as a mediator (the role Mary currently takes in Catholicism) and is worthy of veneration and praying to, but he is not portrayed as God. Verses teaching the Trinity like Matthew 28 are not found in the oldest records of the Bible.

Over the past century, as people have finally been able to express their religious views more freely and question orthodoxy, there has arisen a movement called the Jesus Seminar. This

Jesus seminar includes brilliant historians like Albert Schweitzer, Marcus Borg, Bart Ehrman & John Dominic Crossan. These men were key influences in changing how I viewed Jesus. The Jesus Seminar looks for the historical Jesus, it attempts to tear away the fantasy and later additions to find the truth that lurks behind the stories. It looks at the historical and cultural situation at the time he lived and tries to view him through similar eyes. There have been various theories put forward for what he was – a political and economic revolutionary, a wandering faith healer, an apocalyptic teacher and so on. I believe he was probably a bit of all these things – he was socially and economically revolutionary – believing in establishing a kingdom of god on earth which was egalitarian, peaceful and inclusive. He undoubtedly believed that the world as they knew it was about to change significantly and end. He had a reputation as a healer and miracle worker, he taught in parables and paradoxical statements and he was executed for causing a disturbance at the temple during Passover. I think he believed that he had come to change things, to help create a new society where the poor weren’t treated badly but he would do it non-violently. His teaching was good but hardly original as many of his sayings can be traced back to others before his time, and there is at least one account where he refers to people of another race as “dogs” so we should be careful about viewing him as some kind of super nice-guy. He was human not divine and I think it’s unlikely that he performed any miracles unless they are similar to the fake tricks of today’s so-called miracle healers.

He is undoubtedly a massively influential guy. More has been written about him than probably any other human in history. He has influenced art, culture, law, religion, social action and so much more for the past 2000 years. He continues to influence the world through his followers today. For all these reasons he is a person worthy of respect and reverence, but as for the claim that he is a god….I think even he would disagree with that one.

There is a concept in Druidry of venerating ancestors. This includes not just ancestors of our blood lines but all who lived in the same place as we currently inhabit or, in this case, influenced our culture or lives. Jesus has had such a big influence on western culture and the history of our nation, he has had such an influence on my own life and the lives of many of my blood ancestors, that I wonder whether giving him a place on my altar might be a good idea, to show respect and reverence for the influence he has had. What do you think?

J is for My Journey and Jesus

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the age of 12 I became a born again, Evangelical, Pentecostal Christian (try saying that fast 10 times!) Christianity became the most important part of my identity and I took it very seriously. Many would consider me a fundamentalist as I went around school “preachin’ the gospel” to everyone who didn’t want to know. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realise that telling people not to swear, but to believe in Jesus or they’d end up in hell does not work and just means you have few friends.

By the age of 16 I had become interested in politics thanks to getting involved in community projects and campaigns and this led me to investigate left wing Christianity (I had always thought of it from a Conservative viewpoint before). I read books like “God’s Politics” by Jim Wallis and “The Irresistible Revolution” by Shane Claiborne and through their influence I began to develop an interest in contemplative Christian traditions. I started to research other denominations and realised that they had good reasons for believing what they did – even though that was different to what I believed. This led me to begin questioning the doctrines of the church and I spent months and months researching. The problem is that when you start questioning, you just can’t stop. By the time I got to university I was researching Messianic Judaism, Armstrongism and Unitarianism and trying to work out what the original Christianity would have been. I realised how much of Christianity was based on Paganism (something I saw as bad at the time) and how its “contamination” with Greek philosophy had changed it into something completely unrecognisable from what Jesus would have known. I finally understood the implications of Jesus being Jewish – that he would have believed in one god not a trinity (and never claimed to be god), that he would have celebrated Jewish festivals like Passover not Christmas, and that most of the other doctrines of the Church were completely unbiblical – including the doctrines of hell, going to heaven when you died, Jesus’ sacrifice as an appeasement of an angry god and original sin.

Through discussions with friends at school and university, I began to realise that I needed to take science seriously and try to work out whether the creation story of Genesis could conform to science (yes I was a creationist in my teenage years). I researched the evidence for Evolution and came to the conclusion that it stood up to scrutiny. Further research online helped me understand that it was possible for the two to be in agreement (however I knew at the back of my mind that I could no longer take the Bible completely literally to do so.) I also began to research alternative ways of viewing the book of Revelation and that reduced the influence on me of the dangerous and frankly frightening obsession that many western Christians have in the apocalypse.

By the age of 22 I had come to the conclusion that most of Christianity was false, but I still believed strongly in the existence of God, as well taking Jesus and the Bible seriously. However, two events in early 2010 would change that drastically. The first was that I watched a TV programme which included a gay couple and it looked so normal. As quite a fundamentalist Christian, I had spent all my teenage years struggling and resisting the truth I knew inside about my sexuality. After seeing that programme I began to research homosexuality in the Bible and came to the conclusion that, like most other things, the Church had got it wrong on this one too. I was finally able to come to terms with being gay and soon after I came out to my friends and family. Thankfully, and despite the shock and challenge to their faith, they accepted me.

However, a month later one of my best friends was killed in a car accident. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, it hit me very hard. After his death I began to look for answers within Christianity and it led to me reading books by liberal Christian authors like Marcus Borg. They showed me how historians viewed the Bible and that destroyed what was left of my literalism. I began to see the contradictions in the bible, the fact that it didn’t fit the archaeology and from watching many videos on the internet, I realised that there was a lot of immoral stuff within it that I couldn’t accept would come from a good god. I also realised that if god was real he could have stopped my friends death but he either wasn’t real or wanted it to happen making him evil. Either way, any faith in a loving god was gone. The final piece of the jigsaw puzzle came about six months after my friend was killed. I came across a video called “my spirituality as an atheist” which made me realise that its quite possible to be spiritual without believing in a god. That it was ok. From that point on, I was no longer a Christian and my journey away from Jesus was complete. Next week, I’ll explore how I see Jesus now.

I is for the Declaration of Interdependence

This we know…
We are the earth, through the plants and animals that nourish us.
We are the rains and the oceans that flow through our veins.
We are the breath of the forests of the land, and the plants of the sea.
We are human animals, related to all other life as descendants of the firstborn cell.
We share with these kin a common history, written in our genes.
We share a common present, filled with uncertainty.
And we share a common future, as yet untold.
We humans are but one of thirty million species weaving the thin layer of life enveloping the world.
The stability of communities of living things depends upon this diversity.
Linked in that web, we are interconnected — using, cleansing, sharing and replenishing the fundamental elements of life.
Our home, planet Earth, is finite; all life shares its resources and the energy from the sun, and therefore has limits to growth.
For the first time, we have touched those limits.
When we compromise the air, the water, the soil and the variety of life, we steal from the endless future to serve the fleeting present.

This we believe…
Humans have become so numerous and our tools so powerful that we have driven fellow creatures to extinction, dammed the great rivers, torn down ancient forests, poisoned the earth, rain and wind, and ripped holes in the sky.
Our science has brought pain as well as joy; our comfort is paid for by the suffering of millions.
We are learning from our mistakes, we are mourning our vanished kin, and we now build a new politics of hope.
We respect and uphold the absolute need for clean air, water and soil.
We see that economic activities that benefit the few while shrinking the inheritance of many are wrong.
And since environmental degradation erodes biological capital forever, full ecological and social cost must enter all equations of development.
We are one brief generation in the long march of time; the future is not ours to erase.
So where knowledge is limited, we will remember all those who will walk after us, and err on the side of caution.

This we resolve…
All this that we know and believe must now become the foundation of the way we live.
At this turning point in our relationship with Earth, we work for an evolution: from dominance to partnership; from fragmentation to connection; from insecurity, to interdependence.

From the David Suzuki Foundation

H is for Holidays

Wheel of the Year

Wheel of the Year (Photo credit: nearlywildlife)

Naturalistic Pantheists celebrate eight holidays – the same eight holidays that most Neo-Pagans celebrate – Imbolc, Ostara, Beltaine, Litha, Lughnasadh/ Lammas, Mabon, Samhain and Yule. There are the solar festivals – the solstices and equinoxes and there are the ancient Celtic fire festivals which are important to the agricultural cycle. The calendar is not an old one, but was created during the 20th Century by amalgamating the ancient Celtic and Norse/ Saxon calendars. As Naturalistic Pantheists, we can celebrate these too in order to celebrate the turning of the seasons and connect with mother nature more. It also helps to emphasise the cyclical nature of time.

Although these feasts and festivals already have names, I think it would be good to create our own which have more descriptive terms for them rather than ancient Celtic and Norse words. Here are my suggestions –

February 1st – Feast of the Hearth

Vernal Equinox – Feast of Awakening

May 1st – ?

Summer Solstice – ?

August 1st – Feast of Grain

Autumnal Equinox – Feast of Fruits

November 1st – Feast of Remembrance

Winter Solstice – Feast of Rebirth

I’m not sure what names to give the Summer Solstice and May 1st so would appreciate any ideas. It needs to be something related to whats happening in nature at that time. I was thinking about Feast of Fertility or Feast of flowers for May 1st but i’m not sure. I also much prefer the word “Feast” rather than “festival” because I think eating and food is key to the way we celebrate and to hospitality. It’s a sacred act that connects us directly to the bounty of the Earth Mother.

What does everyone think? What would you call the festivals?