Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Pagan lectio divina

Recently, Cat at Quaker Pagan Reflections posted about lectio divina; and there's a post at The Naked Theologian about how to do it.

This seems like a valuable technique for solo practice; I wonder what a specifically Pagan version of it might look like? And what books might we choose? I recommend Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, or the Tao Te Ching. There's lots of wonderful poetry out there, too. I'm sure you can think of your own examples. You would also need to decide on what deity to focus your devotions.

In the original version, there are four steps: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. The reading stage involves critical engagement with the text, analysing its meanings and metaphors. The meditation stage involves dwelling on the images that particularly resonate with you. This could be developed into a visualisation or journey into the scene described.

The prayer part is difficult - I find petitionary prayer (asking the Divine, or deities, for things or qualities) meaningless and stupid. It's hard to ask a being whom you do not believe to be omnipotent or interested in your trivial problems for stuff. For this part, you could substitute focussing on the qualities you would like to develop (if, like me, you have a problem with asking for stuff). Or perhaps a bit of sympathetic magic.

Finally, contemplation - wordless communion with the Divine (or your chosen deity). This part works fine for me. I think it's always worth trying to see the Divine as immanent in all that is around us, too. Just relax and see the glow and sparkle in everything.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009


You know the way splinters work their way deep into the flesh, and really aggravate you until they're gone? Well, Andrew Brown has been having trouble with splinters...
I did smile at the picture of him carrying a cross through the middle of Cambridge, chiefly because I was imagining how I would feel under the same circumstances; very awkward.
There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.
That is very true. The Greek pagan mystery traditions made a distinction between "that which cannot be spoken of" and "that which myst not be spoken of"; rather like the distinction between the apophatic and cataphatic qualities of God.

I would say that Andrew's position is deeply Unitarian - in the tradition of the Martineaus, and indeed Rammohun Roy, author of the Precepts of Jesus and all the thinkers who were influenced by him, including Emerson, Thoreau, and Joseph Estlin Carpenter.

I'm a Wiccan and a Unitarian, but I joined Unitarianism precisely because I wanted to engage with the Christian mythos and liberal Christian values, without having to actually believe literally in any of the stories. That's why a lot of the addresses that I have produced so far engage with Christian themes, albeit set in a context of comparative religion. I am much more interested in the heretical aspects of Christianity (especially those bits that fit with Taoism etc); but there's a lot of interesting stuff in the Jesus myth, and in the Bible, and for better or worse, it's part of our heritage.

Andrew Brown also points out that natural science has made it impossible for intellectuals to take the Christian mythos literally; in my opinion, natural science has completely squeezed out the need to explain the existence of the universe by the idea of a transcendent or supernatural creator deity (particularly one who is somehow mysteriously three persons in one entity).

It has not removed the need for the mystical Divine as posited by Tillich and others - the ground of our being, that which we hold to be most worthwhile, the existence of love, the immanent Presence in the world, etc.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Law does not produce virtue

I've just seen this quote from Harriet Martineau, and it reminded me of a passage from the Tao Te Ching.
"Laws and customs may be creative of vice; and should be therefore perpetually under process of observation and correction: but laws and customs cannot be creative of virtue: they may encourage and help to preserve it; but they cannot originate it."

- Harriet Martineau

If you want to be a great leader,you must learn to follow the Tao.
Stop trying to control.
Let go of fixed plans and concepts,
and the world will govern itself.

The more prohibitions you have,
the less virtuous people will be.
The more weapons you have,
the less secure people will be.
The more subsidies you have,
the less self-reliant people will be.

Therefore the Master says:
I let go of the law,
and people become honest.
I let go of economics,
and people become prosperous.
I let go of religion,
and people become serene.
I let go of all desire for the common good,
and the good becomes common as grass.

- Lao Tsu

If you want something too much, you end up producing the opposite; if you create laws to control people, you end up tempting them to do the opposite, because they resist oppression.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

a silent act of love

Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realise what that means. They will know nothing of life till they do...

When I was brought down from my prison to the Court of Bankruptcy, between two policemen, Robbie Ross waited in the long dreary corridor that, before the whole crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as, handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed him by. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that.

It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek. I have never said one single word to him about what he did. I do not know to the present moment whether he is aware that I was even conscious of his action. It is not a thing for which one can render formal thanks in formal words. I store it in the treasure-house of my heart. I keep it there as a secret debt that I am glad to think I can never possibly repay. It is embalmed and kept sweet by the myrrh and cassia of many tears. When wisdom has been profitless to me, philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who have sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that little, lovely, silent act of love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity: made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world.

from De Profundis by Oscar Wilde

This beautiful passage from De Profundis was one of the readings from my Palm Sunday service; the others were the life story of Dudley Cave, and the account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday

(address given on April 5th 2009 at Frenchay Unitarian chapel.)

Palm Sunday is a curious festival, celebrating as it does a brief moment of happiness and glory before the tragic outcome we all know so well. According to the story in the gospels, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to a rapturous welcome from the people, who hailed him as a Messiah. Yet only a few days later another crowd was demanding his death. Where were the people who hailed him as a Messiah then, in his hour of need? Were they in hiding, denying that they ever knew him, like Peter? Had they turned against him, embarrassed by their earlier adulation? Of course we shall never know – because the truth or otherwise of the story is concealed beneath centuries of anti-Semitism and the terrible lie that it was the Jews that killed him (whereas, as I am sure we all know, crucifixion was a Roman method of execution; if the Jews had killed him, it would have been by stoning). This terrible lie resulted in centuries of persecution and genocide perpetrated by Christians towards Jews – pogroms in Eastern Europe, forced conversion of Muslims and Jews and then the burning of any who were found to be practicing Judaism in secret in Spain – the list is endless.

So, remembering that it’s only a story, what can we learn from this sudden reversal from adulation to revulsion? It reminds me of the way our society treats celebrities – investing them with all our hopes, and then reviling and despising them when they show their mere humanity. It is like being in love, except that the object of our love is not there to remind us that they have feet of clay; people project all they aspirations outwards onto these figures, and then are bitterly disappointed when they do not live up to the image that has been projected onto them.

It also reminds me of the rise and fall of one particular celebrity, Oscar Wilde. Oscar was the darling of fin-de-si├Ęcle Victorian society, until it was revealed that he had had a same-sex relationship. A revelation that cost him his life. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labour in prison, and it is fairly widely accepted that it dramatically shortened his life. George Bernard Shaw, another Irish writer, was born two years after Wilde and lived another forty-eight years beyond Wilde’s death. Whilst he was in prison, Wilde underwent a profound spiritual transformation, and wrote De Profundis (from the depths), a meditation on suffering.

Another gay martyrdom is the tragic death of Matthew Shepard, who was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die on a hillside in Wyoming by a homophobic mob. A promising young life cut short by a vicious, senseless murder. This is not the only case of homophobic murder – there have been many such murders before and since.

I am not the first person to make the connection between the persecution of Jesus and the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Several artists have done so, as documented in the excellent book Art that Dares by Kittredge Cherry, a lesbian minister in the Metropolitan Community Church. 

The homophobia of Christians was one of the reasons that I stopped being a Christian (the other reasons were the idea that non-believers would go to hell, the view that sexuality is not sacred, and the idea that other religions were false). I also assumed, wrongly, that the Bible condemned homosexuality, and so I ceased to view it as an authoritative text on pretty much anything. One of my best friends (then and now) is a gay man whose life is dedicated to helping others. All my Christian friends at the time said that if he made love to another man, God could not accept him. I could not believe that this was true, and so (in 1983), I ceased to be a Christian. It was only recently, whilst studying for my MA in Contemporary Religions and Spirituality, that I became aware that there was much excellent radical Christian theology being written by lesbian, gay and bisexual identified people; theology that wrestled with the Christian tradition and reforged it in new, exciting and radical shapes. Writers who dared to reinterpret the Bible to show that the Christian tradition is not inherently homophobic. People who were reflecting on the meaning of gender and spirituality.

Of course, none of this is new to Unitarians, who have been open and accepting of gays and lesbians for at least forty years. The first two ministers to be prosecuted in the United States for performing same-sex marriages appeared in court in 2004. Unitarian Universalist ministers Kay Greenleaf and Dawn Sangrey were charged with multiple counts of solemnising a marriage without a licence. All charges against the two ministers were dropped in July 2004. If they had been convicted, though, they would have faced a fine of between $25 and $500, or up to a year in jail. The British Unitarian movement includes a substantial number of gay and lesbian ministers; Unitarian churches welcome LGBT people. In the US, transgender people are also now found among the ordained Unitarian ministry.

Last year, a gunman walked into a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee, and opened fire on the congregation. The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church has worked for social change since the 1950s, including desegregation, racial harmony, fair wages, women's rights and gay rights. The shooting was a hate crime motivated by the gunman’s hatred of gay people and liberals. The Tennessee Valley church was targeted for its liberal values. The two people who were killed were Greg McKendry, a 60-year-old usher at the church, and Linda Kraeger, who died of her injuries at a nearby hospital a few hours after the shooting. Church member Barbara Kemper said that Mr McKendry had "stood in front of the gunman and took the blast to protect the rest of us".  

"Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

So how can we help to bring an end to the terrible destructive violence and hatred of homophobia?

We can campaign for fairer laws – 86 member states of the United Nations still criminalise consensual same sex among adults. Among these, 7 have the death penalty for homosexuality. In addition, there are 6 provinces or territorial units which also imprison people for homosexuality. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people still do not receive completely equal treatment under British law.

We can challenge homophobic attitudes whenever we hear them. We can support campaigns like Stonewall (the gay rights lobby group) and IDAHO. IDAHO is the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. May 17th was chosen because it marks the anniversary of the day in 1990 when the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of mental diseases.

IDAHO day can also be celebratory because all over the world people are fighting against the persecution of LGBT people and are involved in positive initiatives and campaigns which can be celebrated and give hope for the future.

I want to finish with some words by Marcella Althaus-Reid, the queer theologian who died in February:
“Our task and our joy is to find or simply recognise God sitting amongst us, at any time, in any gay bar or in the home of a camp friend who decorates her living room as a chapel and doesn’t leave her rosary at home when going to a salsa bar.”

Thursday, 2 April 2009

The Divine Feminine

(an address given at Frenchay Unitarian chapel on 8th February 2009)

Recently it was Imbolc or Candlemas, on the 2nd of February.

In Ireland, Imbolc is the feast of Brigit, originally a Goddess, and now a saint. The Goddess Brigit is associated with healing, poetry, and smithcraft. The saint is associated with them too, and with the perpetual flame tended by the nuns of Kildare - which possibly goes back to pre-Christian times. There are numerous folk-customs and stories associated with Brigit.

Candlemas is the Christian festival of the Purification of the Virgin, when Mary presented Jesus at the Temple forty days after his birth, to complete her purification after childbirth in accordance with the Law.

Both these festivals have traditionally also focused on the increasing light and life as the days lengthen and the trees start to blossom and bud. They are also a celebration of the Divine Feminine. This is an aspect of the divine that has been neglected in Christianity, due to its patriarchal traditions and its negative view of Eve as the one who brought sin into the world.

But mystics of all traditions have honoured the Divine Feminine. Julian of Norwich, the great Christian mystic, referred to God the Mother (in the context of Trinitarian theology):
And thus in our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. In the knitting and joining he is our real, true spouse and we are his loved wife and his fair maiden. ...The Second Person of the Trinity is our mother in nature, in our substantial making. In him we are grounded and rooted, and he is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh. Thus our mother, Christ, in whom our parts are kept unseparated, works in us in various ways. For in our mother, Christ, we profit and increase, and in mercy he reforms and restores us, and by virtue of his passion, death, and resurrection joins us to our substance. []

In the Orthodox Church, there is also a long tradition of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom (known as Sapientia in Western Christianity); indeed the great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was dedicated to Her. She is both the Bride of Christ and the feminine aspect of Christ. Also, many liberal Christians regard the Holy Spirit as the feminine aspect of God.

In Judaism, there is the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence, and the Ruach, the Breath of God, both of which are seen as feminine. The Shekhinah is believed to descend on the Sabbath eve at the lighting of the candles (usually done by the lady of the house). The Shekhinah is exiled in the physical world and trying to rejoin the Godhead. We can help reunite them in the process of Tikkun - the exercise of compassion, which helps to heal the rift between the worlds. Also, it is regarded as a holy thing to make love on the Sabbath eve, as this helps to reunite the Shekhinah and the Godhead.
In Islam, there is the Sakina, the peace of God, which descends upon believers, who is mentioned twice in the Koran.

In Buddhism, there is Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion. She has taken a vow not to pass in to Nirvana until all souls have achieved enlightenment.

There are also many goddesses in Hinduism and Paganism, and it is in these two traditions that we see the Divine Feminine in all her glorious variety. And yet, one would expect that the presence of goddesses in a religion would guarantee respect for women. That has been the assumption of feminist theologians who pressed for inclusive language, or wanted to throw out the masculine imagery and language and start again. But women didn't have equal status with men in Hinduism until recently - indeed, Rammohun Roy had to campaign for the abolition of widow-burning.

In Paganism, it is probably the existence of priestesses and the influence of feminism that have ensured the equality of women. Also, very importantly, all aspects of womanhood are represented: the maiden, the mother, the warrior, the sexual woman, the crone who is the embodiment of wisdom.

However, a certain amount of gender-role-stereotyping is present in Paganism, and perhaps Pagans need to think more about the Divine that transcends gender - this is one reason why I became interested in Christian mysticism, since that tradition has always insisted that God is beyond gender, even if they refer to the Divine with masculine nouns and pronouns.

The early advocates of the Great Mother Goddess were social conservatives. Jacquetta Hawkes, a prominent enthusiast for the Goddess in the 1930s, believed that women and men were fundamentally different and that the role of women was to remain in the home and bring up children. This is rather ironic in view of the next generation of enthusiasts, the separatist feminists of the sixties and seventies. Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca, was influenced by the idea of the Great Mother Goddess. This is apparent from much of the material that he wrote for use in Wiccan ritual. He was also (embarrassingly for most Wiccans who are largely left-leaning) a member of the Conservative Party. However, the women he portrays in his two novels are very feisty and independent characters.

In Unitarianism - the first denomination to have a female minister, Gertrude von Petzold, in 1904 - women are of course regarded as completely equal to men. Unitarians have also embraced the Divine Feminine to a certain extent, and use inclusive gender-neutral language wherever possible.

Nevertheless, when I hear the word "God", I hear it as a masculine noun. When I hear Spirit of Life, or the Divine, I hear it as gender-neutral. But it doesn't explicitly include the Divine Feminine - the Goddess.

So, how does the Goddess differ from traditional views of God?
  • In all traditions, she is regarded as immanent in the world, not transcendent.
  • She is not just an aspect of a male God, but a being in her own right. (If you want to be properly Unitarian about this, perhaps you could regard Her as an emanation of the Divine source.)
  • She is associated with Nature and the wilderness.
  • She is often seen as a mother who gives birth to the Universe and who also IS the Universe.
  • But she is also the wise crone and the wild maiden.
  • She is the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.
  • She is not interested in imposing laws from on high, but on the emergence of harmony at the grass roots level.
  • She is much more than a Virgin Mother - this is an image which has been very damaging to women by holding out an unattainable ideal and denying the validity of sexual pleasure.
  • Her worship includes sacred sexuality.
Because she is Mother Nature, she is not always sweet and kind; sometimes she is the terrible mother, dealing death mercifully. In Paganism, death is regarded as a natural part of the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth (in contrast to most of Christianity, which regards it as a result of the Fall).

The Divine Feminine was recognised by some Unitarians as early as 1980. A quick search on the web reveals that quite a lot of UK Unitarians honour the Goddess.

I think it is important, in honouring female images of the divine, not to start gender stereotyping, and assuming that some qualities are inherently masculine, and others inherently feminine. This is clearly not true; and in regarding the Divine as being beyond gender, Unitarians are ahead of the game. But rather than always using masculine and gender-neutral language to describe the divine, it would be great to use feminine language sometimes too, however you regard the Divine.

As Maud Robinson, of Dublin Unitarians, writes:
God does not have a gender and although we can readily accept that intellectually, we should be aware that many of us have a deep history of the use of male-centred language in prayer and that it is embedded in our collective psyche. The word God, in itself, causes me problems, it is a word, which despite our modern sophistication and political correctness can’t but conjure up images of a male godhead for many of us. How can we escape from these deeply ingrained images of a male godhead?
I think the answer to her question is to look at images of the Goddess in various religions, and start to explore this imagery in your preferred tradition, or traditions. There are numerous books and websites devoted to Her; and in a tradition dedicated to inclusivity, it seems only right to include both genders.


I am sort of a pantheist (the idea that the Divine is immanent in the Universe), sort of an animist (the idea that everything has a soul), sort of a polymorphist (the idea that the Divine has one substance and many faces or forms).  All of which probably makes me a nondualist, too (I don't believe you can neatly divide the numinous up into good and evil).  I also think that the deity-forms we describe are our cultural overlays or interpretations of the encounters we have with the numinous, which probably doesn't have personality, unless it has emerged by social interaction with us.  And its agenda may not be the same as ours (see my suggestion for a polymorphist bus slogan).

Articles about polymorphism: