Paganism and Rebellion
Article ID: 9000
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,456
Times Read: 5,307
Author: Brendan Myers
Posted: February 13th. 2005
Times Viewed: 5,307
Why do so many people enter Paganism as a way of expressing rebellion? Why do so many of us start on the path only because we wish to be reactionary, by for instance shocking our parents, teachers, or employers, or by deliberately dressing and behaving in ways that push or break the boundaries of social acceptability? The usual answer, if it is not to do with resentment or some grievance, is “because I want to be an individual.” A predictable and banal kind of answer, to be sure — but one with interesting layers of philosophical meaning behind it.
Religion and spirituality are, among other things, the practice of coming to know ourselves. This practice is undertaken in terms of how we identify with and relate to the great mysteries of life and death, purpose and destiny, happiness and fulfillment. It thus brings us to the core of our identities. That which pervasively informs (that is, gives form to) our identities, we call our religion. This is a deliberately open definition, allowing for the possibility that people may treat their loyalty to politics or to sports teams as informing their identities at the deepest level. There is a specific reason why the ancient commandment to “Know Yourself, ” as it was written above the entrance to the Oracle at Delphi, appears the way it does, as a request or a demand. The very statement itself, “know yourself, ” presupposes that people do not intrinsically or automatically know themselves, but must undertake some spiritual adventure to discover themselves. That is one of the main things, which any religion, even a “secular” one, is all about.
The practice of coming to know ourselves is in various ways connected to something other authors have called “the ancient taboo, ” which is the social disapproval and discouragement of the questioning of authority, especially the authority of commonplace beliefs and opinions concerning who we are and what it is to be human. Thus religion must be concerned with the various modes of “being” offered to a person by the society she lives in, especially the ways in which the modes of being on offer do or do not present opportunities for people to freely come to know themselves. When, however, a rebellious person chooses to reject the ways of being on offer from some social authority, from the family and local community or from the state, schools, corporations, and structures of law, she does so precisely because she finds that the modes of being that are recommended, required, or even demanded by these authorities “dehumanise” her, do not allow her to be “herself, ” or even to be “human.” Religion is therefore in various ways related to the phenomena of social rebellion. She may feel that they offer only the narrow choice to conform or not to conform to the mode of being they embody, and so in order to assert herself on her own terms she finds it necessary to rebel. Indeed she finds that this is the only way she can decide for herself who she is. Social criticism and rebellion is an exploration of the ancient problem through the field of conflict.
Here is how it happens. The requirement to “know yourself” must take place in the world, the field of life and action, and it is there where we encounter different and competing answers to the requirement. As it would have been understood in the Oracle’s own time, the requirement to “know yourself” is also a requirement to know the world in which you live, and to know the order of the universe, the “macrocosmic” correlate of human nature, and how the human soul and human political society can, or should, mirror that order. (You have all heard the phrase, “as above, so below…”). Therefore the earliest written records of the ancient problem is in its dimension of social criticism: injustice, vice, and corruption were seen as morally wrong because they violated the cosmic order. Social criticism of this kind is found in the Old Testament and the way that certain Hebrew prophets were persecuted for their outspoken condemnation of the political rulers of their time who, in the unforgettable words of Isaiah, “tread upon the faces of the poor.” A few centuries later, Christian thought carries forward this tradition of social criticism, for instance in the Sermon on the Mount where God’s blessing is bestowed upon the meek, poor, hungry, and sick. The ancient principle behind the Sermon on the Mount is the claim that all human beings, including the oppressed, are made in the image of God (as was claimed in the book of Genesis) and this special status grants them all moral standing. In other ways, however, Christianity advocates social obedience and conformity, as in Paul’s instruction that “the state is there to serve God for your benefit, ” that “wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord, ” that “slaves [should be] obedient to the men who are called your masters, ” and that “every man be subject to the powers that be.” An order of the cosmos had been postulated, together with the claim that human civilisation is to mirror that order, so that everyone will know who he is and how he is to live his life. Thus the state takes the place of the Kingdom of God on the temporal, terrestrial plane: the slave master is to the slave, the employer to the worker, the parent to the child, the husband is to the wife, and the king to the subject, as God is to the human race. So goes that kind of thinking.
The idea that humanity is made in the image of God is a fascinating and powerful way of expressing an answer to the ancient demand to know yourself. We claim we are made in the image of God, and so we know who we are. So too is the idea that the state is a reflection of the divinely mandated cosmic order, which we occasionally find even in the politics of modern secular nations. Both of these ideas are spiritual ideas. Yet both in their own way have been used to justify some of the worst oppressions the world has ever known. For instance, racism has often been founded on the claim that the “superior” race is made in the image of God, but the “inferior” race is not. The ancient demand to know yourself, in its guise as a problem of social criticism, may be stated as follows: the social order does not always offer to every human being the power and opportunity to “be herself, ” and to decide for herself what it means to be human.
So the simple answer to the questions with which I began is this: people who enter Paganism in order to rebel are undertaking the ancient requirement to “know themselves” and are using non-conformity as their vehicle on the journey of self-discovery. I have found that all the Pagans I know who are mature, grounded, and knowledgeable have gone through a process of this kind at one time in their lives. They have questioned who they are; experimented with “being” a different kind of person, and in so doing made important personal spiritual discoveries.
It is in part precisely because Paganism is a subculture at this time that it is likely to attract bohemians, hippies, goths, and all sorts of other non-conformists. The Pagan community should respect that this so, welcome such people, and worry less about them. For the most part, we do. It occurs to me, however, that we may be able to greatly reduce the amount of Witch-warring and internal conflict which plagues our community by recognizing that people who act or behave differently, by for instance practicing a different style or tradition of magic, or a different “love-style, ” and so on, are simply trying out new ways of being and settling on the ways which offer the greatest sense that they are coming to know who they are.
Biblical references: Isaiah 3:15, Romans 13:4, Ephesians 5:23, 6:5, Romans 13:1
Copyright: © Brendan Myers, 2005.
Location: Gatineau, Quebec
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Bio: Cathbad has been on the Druid path for twelve years. Originally from Canada, he now lives in the West of Ireland.
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