Friday, May 29, 2009

Nuclear Family, Cosmic Family (Filial Piety part 1)

If there is any idea fundamental to modern Paganism, it is that the ideas, values, and religious expressions of the ancient, pre-Christian world have something valuable to contribute to the present day.

I am not alone in seeing the virtue ethics of Aristotle as a profoundly important contribution to the world. Even if the precise virtues important in Aristotle's day turn out not to be quite as relevant, the framework itself is extremely useful. Today, when a panoply of seductive choices are presented to us, many of them very bad for us, hardly anything could be more important than cultivating a character which tends toward making better choices.

While I cannot speak for anyone else, I believe that pursuing the virtues is an essential part of my religion. How can I adequately honor the gods if I cannot keep my own life on the right path? What is my veneration worth if I show myself unable to choose the good over the bad in the other areas of my life? And furthermore, I believe that as we become more virtuous, we will be more inclined to religious observances. (Which is not, of course, to say that as we become more inclined to religious observance, we become more virtuous. There are countless counter-examples.)

To show what I mean, I would like to use the example of a much under-appreciated virtue in modern life: filial piety.

I realize that the application of the term to the ancient Mediterranean whence so much of Paganism derives is not entirely historically proper. The term "filial piety" entered the English lexicon not from the writings of the Greek philosophers, but from translations of Confucian texts. Nonetheless, I think it is perfectly appropriate. Archaeological and textual evidence shows that it was an essential part of both Roman and Athenian society. Veneration of one's ancestors was an essential part of the household religious ceremonies. One of the great defenses of traditional religion in the ancient world against skepticism (and against Christianity) was that it had been passed down from ancient times by the ancestors. In Latin, the word "maiores"--literally, the greater ones--was a common term for one's ancestors. And the Greek terms for "piety" and "impiety" are from time to time used to refer to proper and improper treatment of one's fathers, as in Plato's Euthyphro.

It would be very easy to disregard filial piety as unimportant for modern life. Many people would laugh at the idea that it should be given greater focus in the modern age, and many others would consider the idea to be dangerously authoritarian, the sort of thing that perpetuated slavery and continues to perpetuate racism. There is some justice to these claims. Whatever a modern filial piety might look like, it cannot look like ancient piety; in today's society, such a thing would be difficult at best, and damaging at worst. And it is indeed important to gain discernment not to perpetuate the harmful attitudes and behaviors of one's parents.

But on the other side of the coin, the lack of filial piety in America is a significant problem. Far too many Americans tuck the elderly away in nursing homes, where they will cease to be an inconvenience (though I understand that in today's work world, the time and money to care for an elderly mother or father is sadly becoming a luxury). And the mother complaining about how her children never even give her a phone call is an image so common as to be a pop culture trope.

I find these trends rather disturbing. There is something deeply ungrateful about such an attitude. Our parents gave us life, if nothing else. I myself have been fortunate enough to have wonderful parents who have bent over backwards to provide for their children and raise them well. (And I'm sure this colors my attitude to the subject; I may not be quite as happy with the idea had I been poorly raised or even abused as a child.)

Gratitude, I think, is the underpinning of filial piety. The gift of life is the greatest gift anyone could give. It is the gift that makes receiving any other gifts possible. Without my parents, I wouldn't be able to enjoy a breezy spring afternoon or pore over an interesting book. Had they not raised me around books and ensured I paid attention to my schoolwork, I might not have graduated with academic distinctions from a good college.

It is the same sort of gratitude that, in the ancient world, motivated sacrifices and festivals in honor of the gods. The gods were honored as responsible for the continued health and prosperity of the people, as founders or patrons of the city, and for some families in Rome as actual ancestors themselves. In the Greek myths, later appropriated by the Romans, the gods created humans. Plato drew upon this widespread belief in the creation myth of the Timaeus.

To honor the gods, then, is in a sense to take one's rightful place as the descendant of the gods in the cosmic family, which includes not just the gods but worthy ancestors. While this is not the only way to approach religion, I think it's a good and useful one.

In my next post, I'll take a closer look at the questions that arise in applying the concept of filial piety to life in the modern world, especially for Pagans.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Passing the Outsider Test

Atheist and skeptic John W. Loftus spends much of his time "debunking" Christianity. As I've stated elsewhere, I think it's important to grapple with the claims of atheism. Intellectual honesty demands it.

One of the tactics Loftus uses most often is exhorting Christians to take the Outsider Test for Faith. While not a particularly new argument, it is rarely given the kind of primacy Loftus not unjustly gives it. A summation of this argument can be found on the Internet Infidels:

... I propose "the outsider test for faith": Test your religious beliefs as if you were an outsider, subjecting them to the same sort of skeptical evaluation that you would give to the beliefs of the followers of other religions. If you don't approach your own religious beliefs with the same dose of skepticism that you apply to others' religious beliefs, then you are using a double standard. The outsider test is no different than the strategy of the prince from the Cinderella story, who might question 45,000 girls, all of whom claim to be the girl who lost the glass slipper at the ball last night, to determine which one (if any) of them really is that girl.
As he unpacks the argument, it becomes clear that his goal is twofold. First, it is to convince Christians that they ought to be substantially more self-critical about how they examine religious truth claims. In this sense, it is less an argument and more of an and second, to defuse arguments like those of Alvin Plantinga, who state that one can be justified in believing in Christianity even without evidence. On Loftus' analysis, the a priori assumption of the truth of Christianity's claims is a kind of special pleading.

So what does this have to do with Paganism? If my previous analysis is correct, not much. If the question has to do with truth claims, then Paganism--at least in general--is exempt, as it is not a matter of truth claims, but of approaching the Numinous or the Divine.

But nonetheless, Pagans and polytheists themselves (myself included) often do make truth claims about the gods, though Paganism does not demand this, most common among them that they are immaterial or supernatural beings of immense power and beneficence, and they can be known (in some sense) by humans.

While I think that Loftus is quite right in claiming that Christianity tends to fail the Outsider Test, I also think that Paganism, in its many forms, tends to pass it on both counts.

There is certainly a dearth of critical thinking in the Pagan community. When one reads the writings of many Pagan authors, one often cannot help but get the impression that the author perhaps has not thought things through very carefully. But this is not an irreversible problem. Real critical thinking is emerging even now, as Pagans and polytheists begin to tackle real problems in ethics and theology.

The second fork of the Outsider Test is the one with real teeth. Do Pagans, polytheists, reconstructionists, etc., commit special pleading? While I'm sure that many do, I can't think that it's a problem as systematically endemic as it is in the dogmatic monotheisms.

And I do think it's a problem for monotheists. The bloviations of so-called "evidentialist" apologists aside, the evidence for the truth of Christianity is no greater or less than that for the truth of Islam or Judaism. And these options are mutually exclusive. If the New Testament instructs correctly, then Mohammad was at best deluded, and Moses' understanding was incomplete. While one might prefer one of these three for philosophical, aesthetic, moral, or experiential reasons, historical evidence cannot decide between them. But the claim that, because one felt inspired and uplifted at a Christian religious service, Muslims run the risk of damnation, is I think indefensible. Muslims, too, feel uplifted at their religious rites and gatherings. Likewise, philosophical defenses of any particular religion are, by their very nature, complex and controversial things, and in general come to conclusions that can be reasonably disputed.

But I don't think it's a problem for Pagans in general. I, for one, have no problem with the idea that religious revelation is temporally and culturally bound--packaged and understood in terms understandable and relevant to its recipients. I have no problem believing that revelation is constant and ongoing. I have no problem believing in Amaterasu or Vishnu--though I may suspect that followers of Shinto and Hinduism are wrong about some things. But then, I suspect that I'll have to make some corrections in the future myself.

Does Paganism pass the outsider test? As I understand it, it does. And my own approach certainly does.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Rethinking what I'm doing here

When I started this blog, I intended to update at least biweekly. Clearly, that has not happened.

I had much that I wanted to talk about. I've primarily wanted to focus on some philosophical issues dealing with Paganism, starting from the ground up. I do not believe philosophical concerns are ancillary to my spiritual growth; they are instead essential to how I approach religion (and indeed, almost everything). Hence, I laid out the bare bones of a philosophical approach to religion in general, and intended to hone in on Paganism, working out guidelines to help direct my personal practice.

Perils abound. Dozens of times, I've had an idea for a post. Half a dozen times, I've sat down and started writing one out. Every single time, I realized that there was something else I had to work out first--some book I needed to read, whether explicitly philosophical or not. Didn't Plato say something along those lines in the Timaeus? I should get around to finishing it. And I should re-read the Republic. Say, shouldn't I read Virgil before making this post? But heck, while I'm at it, why don't I brush up on my Latin and read the original at the same time as a good translation? And that's not to mention my desire to finish re-reading Martin Heidegger's monumental Being and Time, or to get a grasp on A. N. Whitehead's esoteric Process and Reality.

I feel like I don't know enough or understand deeply enough, and that's something to be rectified before I procede in my writing.

It's paralyzing, not least because others have started to tackle the philosophical issues in Paganism with far more depth than I'm likely to muster anytime soon. The man who chases two hares loses both, and I've had about thirteen dashing around.

Very soon, necessity will prevent me from devoting nearly as much time to these pursuits, as I go back to school to learn accounting. I think this is not a bad thing. It will force me to better manage my time--to slow down and focus on what is most important at each moment. It'll point me to a tighter focus on daily meditation and contemplation, rather than a frenzy of books.

And just maybe I'll manage to get some blog posts up along the way.