Other Horizons

It’s my turn in the Other Horizons roster this week, the new weekly feature in which Agonist writers take an opportunity to post on subjects outside the usual diet of politics and foreign policy. I’d been wondering what to write about before Friday, when events forcibly took over and dictated for me what I’d be thinking about and writing about for days, a set of issues that because of experiences I feel very strongly about indeed.

Then last night it came to me that I could write something personal, because it is something I rarely do. That would be a “new horizon” for me. Maybe about some poetry or about my own faith – two other things that have had huge influences on my life and which I never write about because I’m always so busy with politics or foreign affairs. Poetry was my first writing love, my first reading love – if I’m driven to write on a blog daily nowadays its a redirection of that passion to get thoughts to cohere in an economy of the written word. My faith drives my entire life, but its something I rarely talk about in writing except in passing – it is my faith and I don’t expect you to share it, convert to it or even be all that respectful of it. (It seems to me that someone who says they have faith and then gets all booty hurt because others don’t share it, even if they laugh, isn’t showing the kind of faith they say they have.)

So then I thought I might combine the two.

I am what you might call an eclectic pagan, if you had to slap a label on it. I’m a pantheist who believes that there is something we can call Divine and that all the Gods and Goddesses of human religions are but human representations of a fraction of that limitless light, which is not something external to us but is the very sum of all things in all times. as Spinoza would tell us if he’d lived to see modern physics, the only thing large enough to apprehend the entire universe is the universe itself,  the observer become the observed in a self-referential loop. Yet if the Divine is the whole enchillada, it’s too big for our human brains.

As one wise woman once put it: imagine the Divine is a mountain and you’re climbing it with your face six inches from the bedrock. You see a patch of grass in a cleft, the roots of a tree, a patterns of rock – and give each feature a name – but it is only by climbing over enough of the mountain that you can begin to build up a mental map of the whole thing, and even then it is an imperfect map because the mountain is just too damn big to hold an accurate map of in the human head. That’s our relationship to the Divine, I believe – each feature of the mountain gets given a name (Zeus, Isis, Jehovah) and an attached mythology as a memnonic for the relationships between that aspect and others, between that aspect and the whole. It’s best, if you are going to express your own appreciation fo such a Divine, if you do so in terms of the imagery which resonates most deeply with you, and that will be different by degrees for each person.

(By the way, feel free to laugh at any point – as I said, this is my faith not yours and my own conception of the Divine is not jealous or petulent. I won’t try to burn you at the stake.)

So, when I first articulated my faith, I chose a set of imagery and motifs that spoke deeply to me: those of the Gods and the Godesses of the celtic pantheon of the British Isles, for I saw echoes and examples everywhere I went. That’s changed, of course, because there’s a lack of ancient stones, wells and landscape features named and shaped to echo the divine aspects of Mabon or Brigid in West Texas. I’ve utilized those deep jungian motifs in their celtic forms for a lot of years though, and they’re very persistent in my mind even as I slowly learn and adapt to the motifs that show through in the local landscape, local legends.

This piece, written in fall last year, is about that as well as an account of my own journey through life’s trials and tribulations. I hope you like it as it is my other horizons submission for this week.

The Ages Of This Man 

I came to be, long ages past it seems to me,
In the land of the hidden people,
The painted and tattooed people
Who carved their spirits into stone,
In geometry and animal forms,
But keeping their secrets unwritten,
Rather dying than reveal the drunken poesy
That spilled from the heather onto their lips.
Fields to school me, filled with wheat,
Or fly-buzzed sheep and cattle.
Basket of eggs lined with silver filigree,
Where sea surrounds to fuse with skies
Rarely entirely blue.

Settling in time, for the next long age,
I lived as a young man in the land of Aneirin,
Gododdin, land between the walls.
An age of craft and riches,
Of walking the Lady’s stony breasts,
Meeting with the stag in the deep wood,
Learning the wonders of the trees.
An age of climbing, striving,
Gaining gold and home,
Even a powder blue Lady of Mercy.
An age, as it became, of the Tower,
Building so much on sand, you see -
Wife and work until they broke me.

And so to a new age, and a new land,
Emergent moth, drab and closer to the light.
That light become a new, red, love,
(Still harkening for Celtic shores by blood)
And all begins anew.
Anew in arid, sun-chased places,
Scrubby trees root in sun-dried seas,
Beneath me a league of shellfish stone
And black gold squeezed from life
By geological weights of time.
Petroglyphs tell faintly of the earliest here,
Camped by spring to trade and follow bison,
Soft Jumano whispers on the wind.

Here in this age I have found an oasis, my magic,
Children brought by love, mine now wholehearted.
The littlest Stitch, my flesh, glitched and knows it, alas -
My care and my happy thought.
I’m looking to future aeons.

10 comments to Other Horizons

  • adrena

    Thank you, Steve.

    I wonder where I would fit in on the mountain, or if I would fit in at all. From the time I was a little girl I have always found the ideas presented to me by the Catholic institutions thrust upon me by my – religious in name only – parents to be baloney. I have never looked for the “Divine” so I have never had the desire really to climb a mountain.

    I consider myself to be part of a universe I don’t understand – and I’m perfectly comfortable with not understanding it. What I do understand though is that the need to survive on our planet is a natural instinct. It is something I desire for myself as well as for my children and their children. I don’t seek survival through a divine body but rather through trying to influence humankind by emphasizing that the only way forward is through cooperation, not war; through love, not violence; and above all, through accepting and appreciating human diversity in its myriad forms.

    • If you ground the entire universe down to the finest grit and ran that grit through the finest filters imaginable, I doubt you’d find a single ounce of “divinity”…but neither would you find a single ounce of “love”, “justice”, “good”, “evil” and a whole bunch of other things we as humans find useful in life, each in our own way and to our own measure. I’m perfectly happy with atheism or agnosticism being just as much a part of that ephemeral mountain as anything else we can’t weigh in a scale. Personally, I always try to be agnostic on Thursdays, just to keep from taking myself too po-faced seriously when it comes to my faith.

      • I wouldn’t say I have a faith per se. What I have is great curiosity and a lot of experiences which cannot be explained by science – yet. While the science of the mind is progressing quickly and I follow it closely, I think there will always be inexplicable experiences, beyond fMRI, beyond proof/disproof because they are untestable. Mother Nature (or the Great Spaghetti Monster, et al) will always have an ace up the sleeve, and that alone is highly suggestive.

        The real problem with most religions is that they operate within the confines of their understanding of the mind – if it can’t be thought out and formulated in words, it doesn’t exist. But the mind is not limited to thinking. There are experiences that are beyond our thinking capability. That’s why I read the mystics more than the ‘rationalists’. That’s why the 1960s in Greenwich Village were ‘educational’. That’s what Zen is all about.

      • adrena

        I beg to disagree with your assertions. In my view, humans do not need a “divinity” to survive. The ancients understood that the boots made by a woman from deer hide would help a cold climate hunter far more than any belief in a divinity could. Survival requires humans to appreciate each other’s unique contributions and to get along.

        Cooperation is what drives human evolution and advancement, not beliefs in divinities.

        Divinities were created to subvert human nature, imho. The Bible and the Koran are a perfect example of that.

        • I wouldn’t say we need Divinity, certainly not in the way we need food or warm clothes. Atheists are not necessarily cold and hungry, after all.

          As Steve noted, there are a lot of concepts we find useful and one could argue are necessary ideas if humans are to function well in groups. The fact is we need ideas in order to organize our experience. We cannot think without concepts. Love, friendship, goodness, hope, trust – all just ideas that let us conceptualize and formulate behaviors which benefit us.

          One could argue we don’t need love, friendship, justice, etc. but it would be a pretty bleak world without them and society would be impossible, which might well make survival of the species problematic. You can’t have these goodies without the concept of them, so the question becomes whether the concept of divinity has any useful purpose.

          As a linguist, I find concepts in every language which are unique (and untranslatable) and which the speakers obviously find useful in organizing their understanding of the world.
          The problem with divinity is not the concept per se but how it has been [mis]used. It can be put to better use than constructing religions.

          Bottom line: What concepts each of us find useful in dealing with the world is ultimately a matter of personal choice.

          • adrena

            Bottom line: What concepts each of us find useful in dealing with the world is ultimately a matter of personal choice.

            Right!

            So I ain’t climbing no mountain but I’ll wave at those that do and hope they will find the peace they seek.

        • I’ve no problem with you disagreeing with my assertions (if they are in fact such), Adrena. As I’ve tried to indicate all along, I’m from the “your mileage may vary” kind of faithful. I’m very definitely not from the Bible and Koran kind.

          But I’d note that I did not at any point say anyone “needs” a “divinity to survive. I simply pointed out that there are many things that are likewise intangible that many people say bring depth and meaning and worth to their lives. I’ve always though to be an actual atheist rather than being agnostic was to wander down a dangerous logical path that implies assertions about there not being actual existing things as, and people not needing, “love”, “justice” and other useful concepts. They have as much material proof going for them as the concept of the divine, after all.

        • Raja

          Fists came first for hand evolution, scientists suggest

          Agence France-Presse, December 19

          Biologists say the human hand is a wonder of evolution, providing dexterity that lets our species perform activities as diverse as bricklaying, writing, ice hockey and brain surgery.

          But what were the forces that, over thousands of years, sculpted our hand into the shape it is today?

          Was it to grab and use primitive tools, as many experts surmise? To pick fruit and berries?

          Now a new concept has risen: It was also to create a fist, so that we could fight other humans.

          “The role aggression has played in our evolution has not been adequately appreciated,” said David Carrier, a University of Utah professor who is promoting the novel theory with colleague Michael Morgan.

          “There are people who do not like this idea, but it is clear that compared with other mammals, great apes are a relatively aggressive group with lots of fighting and violence, and that includes us. We’re the poster children for violence.”

          ;-> …Echidne (She of the Snakes) disassembles this one, so we don’t have to: The Power Of The Fist: An Evolutionary Saga.

  • Jewish Kabbalists sometimes posit two concepts of divinity.

    One concept is admittedly anthropomorphic, an allegory which we can get our minds around in lieu of grasping the reality. It is inaccurate, insufficient and incomplete but has the virtue of being something we can relate to on some level.

    The second concept is of a entity so beyond our comprehension that about all you can say about it is that is beyond our comprehension. This does not mean divinity cannot be apprehended – it’s just that when you connect, you won’t understand what you’ve found.

    We have a tendency to build constructs around our experiences, but some things can only be experienced. In some ways, the mind is more limited than the body/senses.

    Re the poetry:
    Being transplanted is always enlightening, isn’t it? The Eternal Verities are indeed eternal, no matter how they are embodied, but it takes time to find them.

    As Woody Guthrie put it, every place is holy ground.

    • Bingo, Steeleweed. On my Agnostic Thursdays I’ll occasionally talk with other pagans about our experiences, and frame them in terms of changes in brain neuro-chemistry arising from practises involving meditation, ritual etc. That’s just as true a description as talking about “touching the divine” as a religious experience but neither tell the whole story alone. To borrow from Daniel Dennett and use his lovely, atrocious, pun: “The soul is greater than the hum of its parts”.

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