Beyond Sacrifice and Blessing
We’re trying to build a religion. By ‘we’ I refer to myself and my colleagues in ADF. For the past 30 years we have been researching and designing symbol sets and ritual patterns that provide the framework on which a religion can stand. Our work is proceeding well. We have dozens of local congregations, serving thousands of Pagans across the US. (Our formal membership number hovers around 1500, but our Groves serve a vastly larger number in local communities. Check our reorganized website here)
The fact is, we have a religion up and running – a family of religions, really. Being polytheist, local cult varies widely, different Groves worship different Gods, etc. We are unified by our ritual customs and by our common vision of polytheism restored to the common discourse of the modern world.
However we are a very young religion. We are grown from shallow soil – the enthusiasm and amateur scholarship of late-20th century Neopaganism. We are rooting well, but our real growth is still ahead. I see two important directions for our growth. Both are implicit in our ideas, but not very much expressed. The two may be related in various ways.
First, I think we can benefit by inventing and rediscovering formal methods of spiritual technique. My most usual shorthand for ‘formal methods of spiritual technique’ is ‘magic’. Formal methods bring the system closer to the living voices of the spirits, and stand as a counterweight to the high pile of rationalism produced by our scholastic inclinations. Readers of this blog will have watched me make some efforts at this, and more will be forthcoming.
The second large branch of religious work before us is the work of helping mortals to be happy. We have begun that work through our rituals of blessing. In ancient days such rituals may have been all the comfort offered to people by religion.
If I were to set a primary goal for spiritual practice (and this after long consideration of terms like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘liberation’) I might propose that it should make us happy – or at least happier. Note that here I’m not referring to some mystical adventure goal, of heroic conquest of reality. Rather I’m asking what good should a spiritual practice offer to the non-adventurer, to the “householder”, as they say.
Spiritual growth and magical power – those have commonly been the goals of occult spirituality. However any review of the histories of magical arts shows that these goals do not, in themselves, result in happiness for the individual.
Happiness for the individual is the common-sense base that seems to me, at least, to be a believable goal of life. As human animals it is our business to enjoy the world we find ourselves in, to learn to understand our bodies and other material things so that we can interact pleasantly and productively, even to apply our imagination and creativity to increase beauty and utility in the world.
I’m going to be trying to write a bit on this topic. It feels presumptuous, rather, but that’s never stopped me before. I’ve gotten a bit of age on me, watched both myself and a number of other people live life, and devoted myself, off and on, to spiritual work. I find myself with this or that notion about the subject of happiness.
What It Is.
Let me skip further prologue and propose my tripartite notion of ‘happiness’ .
Happiness is composed of contentment, fulfillment, and delight. When these are present, properly mixed for the individual, that individual knows happiness.
1: Contentment: On the first level this refers to satisfaction of basic biosurvival needs. Food, Housing and Sexual Release are powerful basics. If they are not met sufficiently to the individual, it’s hard to move on toward happiness. Some mysticisms try to short-circuit psychological dependence on these basics. That’s a difficult road; for the householder it is simply the work of life to meet these needs. When one can ‘come home’ to a safe, personal space in which ones needs are met, the physical end of contentment is met. Further issues surrounding contentment are often tied in with the second category.
2: Fulfillment: Each of us is born with a specific set of potentials and inclinations. While we may be 80% similar to any other person born in our time and place, there are balances of brain chemistry, variances of perception and chances of programming that bring each of us toward adulthood with a unique personal profile. In order to be happy, it seems to me that the individual must have some expression of and recognition of those potentials. Our ‘dreams’ and aspirations must achieve some manifestation.
3: Delight: (or ‘joy’, or ‘peak experience’) The human nervous system has the potential for very intense experience. Beyond the day-to-day management of our lives, we can know great experiences of joy, delight, terror, pain, wonder and despair. The ancients tell us how important such experiences are to the formation of a fulfilled life. Notably, experiences of pain and harm make deep tracks in our neurology and memory. It can be especially valuable to balance those with powerful experiences of joy, wonder and delight. For many people sexual experience fills this need, but there are many other methods.
Why It’s Good
Isn’t this obvious? Maybe. It’s good, first, because it feels good. Why does happiness feel good?
That’s a long way round to assert that ‘happiness is good’, but that’s philosophy fer ya.
What Does Religion Have To Do With It?
It does not seem that in Pagan times people went to their temples to seek relief from emotional or financial turmoil. The cares of mortal life - confusion, indecision - were not the provenance of priests or ‘clergy’ (the latter term didn’t exist). There was no model that said that the human self is essentially broken or in error, and so priests did not make it their business to advise the folk on how to live, or seek the ‘cure of souls’.
That job, in the literate cultures of which we have record, fell to what the Greeks called ‘philosophers’ – people who undertook to comprehend how human life works, and how one can make it work well. They created systems that were called ‘bios’ (my Greek is nonexistent) meaning ‘way of life’. Various philosophers prescribed various notions, from naked exercise to vegetarianism, from pietistic devotion to rationalist skepticism. This supermarket of lifestyles was the norm for seekers in the ancient world.
Modern people expect their religious practice to help them be happier and more successful. For many modern practitioners of religion, their church serves as a primary social institution, in which they seek to meet many of their fulfillment needs. Some even seek basic material needs through their churches, especially in context of ‘charitable’ work.
Two such systems have had special influence in the modern world. The first is Buddhism. The Buddhist method isessentially a ‘way of life’ (in the Hellenic sense) that prescribes various moral and lifestyle stances, along with a system of mental management meant to soothe the passions and promote rational judgment.
The second is Christianity. Christianity was in fact mistaken for ‘a philosophy’ by early Pagans. The notion of wealth-renouncing preachers standing under trees proclaiming ‘the Good’ was familiar to Hellenes – their philosophers were the usual culprits. Christianity also offered a code of morals combined with a method of spiritual practice.
Let me mention one other major model of moral and spiritual formation that has greatly influenced the Pagan movement – the training systems of Masonry and their related schools. In these models the student is given a series of moral lessons as they proceed through the teachings. In more mystical versions the lessons accompany teaching of occult techniques intended to grant wisdom and power to the student. This model had a primary influence on early Wiccan teaching. The three ‘degrees’ of that form of witchcraft are used as a progressive schooling toward spiritual growth and magical power. This ladder-model attempts to combine some of the sense of the ‘spiritual adventure’ of mysticism with the moral soundness of the householder life.
Whatever opinion one may have of these paths in history, every modern Pagan is influenced by the models of ‘religion’ that they present. We are trained to expect aid and comfort, emotional support and the alliance of higher powers from our religions. Much of modern Paganism seems little concerned with this kind of work. However those who are entering our systems from more popular ways will have those expectations. They will expect a religion (i.e. a way of connecting the individual with the divine) to come complete with a way of life (guidelines and methods for living well and being happy).
The ancients sometimes called their spiritual goal “The Summum Bonum; True Wisdom and Perfect Happiness”. With the understanding that True and Perfect things are seldom real in the world, that old formula seems to me to be a fine expression of the goal of spiritual self-work.
So I’m going to have this topic on my burners. How do I think happiness can be achieved in various circumstances? What are the personal internal mechanisms that produce and maintain happiness? I’m going to avoid quoting various modern science, unless something particularly striking comes along, in favor of present what amount to nothing more than my best guess. Don’t worry, there will still be plenty of Paganism, occultism and magic. There will even be moments when the two topics converge.