Spirituality, Philosophy, Religion, and Institutionalism
Article ID: 10720
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Cael SpiritHawk
Posted: May 21st. 2006
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Most people in the world wear clothing as a matter of course. Generally even people who live as nudists or naturists have worn clothing in the past, or have occasion to wear it when interacting with the more clothes-conscious public world. Leaving nudists and naturists aside, I would like to talk about the clothing that most people in Western society wear.
There are three ‘levels’ of clothing that we usually wear in the course of normal daily life. The first level, of course, is “none at all”. We take off all of our clothes when we bathe, and at certain other times as well. The second level is the clothing that we wear for our own comfort when no one is watching (like the worn-out full-of-holes sweatshirt that’s so comfortable to curl up and read in, but we’d never be caught dead wearing in public) . The third level is what we wear when we go out and are going to be seen (and possibly scrutinized) by others. I am going to refer to these as the “Levels of Vanity”.
We can have no vanity when we stand naked in front of a mirror. That birthmark shows, and any cellulite lurking below becomes evident. If we have breasts, and shouldn’t, or should but they’re the wrong shape or size for our own image of beauty, we see that. If our bottom is too big or our knees too knobby or our chest too hairy, or any other flaw we perceive in our physical selves, the mirror shows it when we stand there before it, naked. There can be no vanity. This is the first level.
When we’re alone at home, having a lazy day of reading or watching TV, we wear what makes us feel comfortable. That comfort may be of a practical nature (such as a woman who has breasts large enough that going up and down stairs without a bra on is painful) , or of a luxurious nature (such as the soft, woolly jammies someone might wear while reading on the couch) , or of a vain nature (the t-shirt and shorts that are worn to cover up the cellulite or the birthmark or what-have-you so that we don’t have to be reminded of it) . This latter type of clothing, the sort that we wear to hide the flaws we perceive in ourselves from ourselves, is the second level of vanity.
When we go out into the world, we wear clothes that say something about ourselves. The “something” that they say is the message about us that people receive, just by looking at us. We put on clothes that we think will send the message that we want, but the message that is actually received depends a lot on the mindset and prejudices of the person doing the looking. The youth who wears baggy, loose crotch-around-the-knees pants may be trying to send the message, “Look at me, I’m a gangsta, behold my suburban middle-class dangerousness, and tremble”, but when he wears it to the local mall, the elderly gentleman walking by might receive, “I need to learn how to wear pants that fit, ” and the real gangster nearby might receive, “I’m a sorry poser and I need to have my butt kicked.”
The adolescent girl who wears impractically-tight jeans and a midriff-baring top may mean to say, “Look at me, I’m cute and sexy and fun.” But the elderly gentleman may receive, “I have no moral fiber, and I’m probably a tart, ” and the gangster may receive, “I’m available to have sex with, even if I don’t know it yet.”
These clothes are the third level of vanity; they are an expression of a message that we want to send, or something we want to say about ourselves when people look at us. We need to be careful with what we let our clothing say, because the message that we want to send may not be the message that is received, and people will act on what they perceive, not on what we want them to.
There is a fourth level of vanity, and it goes beyond clothing. Clothing can only express a message when we’re there to be wearing it. The fourth level of vanity deals with the messages that we try to send when we’re not even around. For instance, a person who parks his shiny expensive car across two parking spaces at the mall may wish to send the message, “I have a really nice car and I don’t want any harm to come to it”, whereas the people looking for a place to park their own cars in the crowded lot may receive the message, “I consider myself more important than everyone else, which is why I take up two parking spaces while the rest of you only get one.” The preacher who builds an enormous stained-glass behemoth to the glory of his god may mean to say, “Look at how magnificent our god is; we love him so much we built this beautiful place to worship him in.” But the people driving past may perceive, “We had all of this money we could have used to help the poor and hungry, but we felt it was more important to knock down a bunch of trees and spend millions of dollars building an imposing eyesore so that people would know how righteous we are.”
Perception and intent. What we do is all about intent, but what other people think about what we do is all about perception.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what relevance this all has to the people of WitchVox. This is the part where I get to the point.
We have levels of vanity in our Path as well. I refer to those levels (from lowest to highest) as: Spirituality, Philosophy, Religion, and Institutionalism.
Spirituality is the equivalent of the naked self; it is the connection (or lack thereof) we have with the Divine (and at this level, Names are irrelevant) . Either we have a connection to something Divine, or we do not. If we have one, either it is strong, or it is not. Either it is supportive, or it is adversarial. But above all, it is what it is. There is no vanity here; there is no lying or prevarication, no temporizing or digging in the dirt with our toe while we come up with an excuse. Our connection with the Divine is a certain way, and there’s no getting around it. It might not be as strong as we’d like, and it might not be as positive as we’d like. But it is what it is, and when we stand naked before the Divine, there’s no hiding the truth.
Philosophy is the next level of vanity; it is what we do with our spirituality when no one else is looking. Do we feel, spiritually, a connection to all creatures of Nature, but still kill spiders out of irrational fear? This is philosophy. This is the way we live our lives, and it is based upon our spirituality. A person with Size 12 feet cannot put on Size 11 shoes without discomfort. The (level 1) naked body cannot support a non-fitting shoe (level 2) . Likewise, if our philosophy is at odds with our spirituality, there is stress. Perhaps we feel guilty for killing spiders, because we know in our hearts that it’s wrong…but we did it anyway. This is the part of ourselves that we see, and the part that defines who we are in truth, but (ironically) we might never show it to anyone else.
Religion is the third level of vanity; this is built upon our philosophy and our spirituality. This is the level where we do things for other people to see, so that they can understand more about who we are. Interestingly enough, sometimes religion can keep us in line, behaviorally, with our spirituality better than our philosophy can. If you’re ashamed of killing a spider, you wouldn’t do it in front of someone else. That’s religion. That’s sending a message about what you know is right, even if it runs counter to your desires (your philosophy) .
Institutionalism is the fourth level of vanity. It is the act of establishing a monument to religion, philosophy, or spirituality (or any combination of the three) that will persist even when we are not there. Whether we have passed from this world, or simply moved to another part of it, institutionalism allows us to feel like we have left a part of ourselves behind, that we be not forgotten. Many Christian groups exhibit institutionalism as I described above, by building enormous churches to the glory of their god. Modern Pagans, as a rule, tend not to build large monuments to their beliefs (although historically this is not so; consider the Pyramids of Egypt or Central and South America) . I believe this is in part because Pagan beliefs are not “mainstream” enough in modern society to support such monuments; every time a Pagan group tries to make any such thing, some group or other gets in the way out of ignorance, fear, or sheer bloody-mindedness. But Pagans do practice institutionalism in the sense that we pass oral and written learning down through our generations. Knowledge that was learned from a wise teacher recalls the teacher to mind whenever the student uses the knowledge. The teacher may have passed from this world, but he or she lives on in the heart and mind of the student. Institution.
Why is all of this important? It is important because there is a constant debate raging in the Pagan community. In a community that is supposed to be about acceptance of another’s beliefs, as long as they do not impinge on others, we have people who feel the need to tell others, “you’re doing it wrong; here’s how you’re supposed to be doing it.”
I am referring to the ongoing debate between those who believe that broad-based solitary eclecticism is the right path, and those who believe that single-pantheon traditionalism is the right path.
Solitary eclecticism may be the wrong path for some, and it may not offer the same avenues for fellowship that Coven-centered Wicca does. Strict Wicca may be the wrong path for others, and it may not offer the freedom to combine pantheons to connect with the Divine in a personally-customized way. But there is no need for Wiccans to be sniping at the Solitary Eclectics for creating their own Path. And there’s no need for Solitary Eclectics to bellyache about the Wiccans being too orthodox. I imagine that the debate is tired enough that sooner or later the Ásatrú are going to begin having thoughts about how they might use their hammers to stop it, once and for all.
Part of the impetus for this infighting, I believe, comes from the fact that people often do not understand the relationship among, and the distinctions between, the levels of vanity. Christians, in my experience, usually have no understanding of the difference between spirituality, philosophy, and religion. If they accept Jesus as their personal Savior (philosophy) , then they’re assured of God’s forgiveness and will have a good afterlife (spirituality) . If they (Catholics, anyway) confess their sins to a priest (religion) and perform their penance (philosophy) , then their sins are washed away and their soul is clean (spirituality) . What they don’t understand that it’s the intent behind actions, not the actions themselves, that make a difference. Saying 20 Hail Marys and 10 Lord’s Prayers does nothing to enhance one’s spiritual connection to the divine, if one is repeating it out of rote memory while watching wrestling on TV. If it’s done with intent and true focus on strengthening the connection to the Divine, then it will have an effect. But then, so will performing Chakra vocalizations, if the intent is there.
Some Pagans, it would seem, are having difficulty with the same distinctions. The Paths we walk are supposed to be about spirituality; about our own personal connection with the Divine. We can strengthen (or weaken) that connection by what we do, just as we can strengthen or weaken our bodies by exercising or being lazy. In general, for the lower three levels of vanity, each level can only strengthen or weaken the levels adjacent to it; religion cannot affect spirituality directly, and vice versa. Strong religious beliefs can affect philosophy over time, and solid philosophy can affect one’s spiritual connection to the Divine. Likewise, a neglected sense of spirituality can lead to philosophical aimlessness, and thus eventually to religious apathy. So in a community that is supposed to be about spirituality, we're missing the mark and having debates about religion, two things that are only tenuously connected, through the medium of personal philosophy. It's meaningless to try to “correct” someone's religion, because their religion is based upon their philosophy, which is grounded in their spiritualism. If they're actually truly wrong, and their spirituality is a shambles, then all you've done is put paint over termite-infested wood; it's still rotten to the core. And if they're not wrong, and their spirituality is sound even though you disagree with their religion, all you have done is insult their intelligence and made yourself look boorish.
Lots of people want to take shortcuts. “If the candles are the right color on the altar (religion) , then the gods will be happy with us (spirituality) .” “If I feel a really strong connection to the Goddess (spirituality) I have everything it takes to be Priestess of a Coven (religion) , or a teacher (institutionalism) .” But it doesn’t work that way. It cannot work that way, because the gods are not children; they see our naked selves, just as the mirror does, and they don’t care what metaphorical clothes we put on to impress other people. The gods (or the All, or the Great Spirit, by whatever name) are interested in our true selves. They care about what we do when we think no one is looking. Thus our philosophical behavior can affect our spiritual connection. And if our philosophy and our religion are not in line with one another, that’s philosophically and intellectually dishonest. And they take note of that as well.
Institutionalism, by contrast, affects religion, but not so much our own; rather, it affects other people’s. When we teach (institutionalism) we offer knowledge of how we believe the student should interact with the world (religion) . This can only affect the outward knowledge of the student (religion) . Whether that knowledge in turn changes the way they actually do things (philosophy) is up to the student.
The debate of Traditionalist versus Solitary Eclectic, or Vehemently-non-Wiccan-Witch versus Wiccan, or whatever sect versus whatever other sect, is a debate of religions, and a disagreement about which one is “best”. This is ironic, for a community of people who have (theoretically) discarded the idea of mainstream religious orthodoxy in order to pursue a path to spirituality that made more sense.
Arguing over whose level-three vanity (religion) is “best” is as meaningless and juvenile as a herd of counter-culture kids throwing someone out of their clique for not wearing the “right” sort of counter-culture clothing. It’s like saying, “to be a true individual, you must go against the mainstream in the same way that I am.”
It’s time for that debate to end, because it’s pointless, divisive, and counterproductive. Eclectics, it’s time to leave the Traditionalists alone; their religion is the way they’ve chosen to shape their philosophy in order to strengthen their spirituality. Traditionalists, it’s time to leave the Eclectics alone. Their religion is the way they’ve chosen to shape their philosophy in order to strengthen their spirituality.
If you disagree with a particular Pagan author, don’t buy his or her books. If you think that multi-pantheism is scatterbrained and a silly thing to do, don’t do it. If you think that Gardnerian Wicca is as stifling as a Southern Baptist church, don’t join a Gardnerian Coven. If you don’t like what’s on TV, change the channel or shut it off. Make your choices based upon your own philosophy, and recognize that other people have a different philosophy, which leads them to make different choices. If you’re right and they’re wrong, they may eventually learn by your example. If you’re wrong and they’re right, perhaps their example will teach you. Realize that just because something is not right for you, it does not mean that it cannot be right for someone else.
When someone tells someone else they have to practice in a particular way, there are generally two reasons why they do it. The first is that they feel self-conscious about the fact that they do it that way, and convincing others to do it the same way will make them feel less weird. The second is that they’re not actually sure they believe in what they’re professing, and they’re trying to convince themselves by way of convincing others. (This is the same phenomenon as the new martial artist walking into a bar and picking a fight to prove how much of a tough guy he is. And it usually ends just as badly) .
Those who are secure and comfortable in who they are and what they do generally do not feel the need to try to force others to be the same way. So if you do feel the need to convince others that their religious practices or beliefs, on their own personal Path, are wrong, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself: what are you trying to prove, and to whom?
Copyright: Copyright 2006 - Paladin Sage
Location: Manassas, Virginia
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