Friday, June 5, 2009

The Challenge of Piety (Filial Piety part 2)

I was somehow unaware when I started on this topic that June has been dubbed International Pagan Values Blogging Month. It's synchronicity, I suppose, that I started on the topic of a particular virtue just as a huge chunk of the Pagan blogosphere takes up the topic.

In my last post on filial piety, I briefly outlined a couple good reasons to think that 1) filial piety was important in the ancient world, 2) we have reasons to keep it in mind in the modern world, and 3) it has theological implications. Each of these topics deserves much more attention than I gave them--especially the presence of something identifiable as filial piety in the West--but I'm going to be moving on just the same.

Before I go on, I should probably state from the outset that one problem I do not wish to undertake is the problem of parental abuse or gross misconduct. I lack both the wisdom and the experience to say anything on the topic that would not run grossly astray or cause offense.

The very idea of this kind of piety--and that it might be a kind of piety--might seem offensive to many Pagans. While I suspect that the idea will be much less problematic to reconstructionists and recon-oriented Pagans, I do not expect a great deal of agreement--at least initially--from those oriented toward more contemporary religious expressions. Though I could be wrong.

In fact, the very word piety is almost unused outside recon circles. It is not difficult to understand why. With the last fifteen hundred years of Christian dominance, the word "piety" has taken on connotations that are not at all pleasant. The worst members of that religion have been said to "piously" defend the grossest violations of human life--both of the body and the mind. I would ask any readers who find the term "piety" difficult to set these connotations aside and remember that, just as in Homer Achilles was known for his might in battle and Odysseus for his wiles, Virgil writes about the unflagging pietas of Aeneas. Piety, when I use it, is not the mendacious cover for wrongful thoughts and deeds that it has been used for, but the virtue of properly discharging one's duties especially to the gods, but also to other entities and institutions of great importance. (Patriotism could be construed to be a kind of piety, for instance.)

There are a number of problems that arise when trying to apply ancient ideals of piety to the modern world. Pagans deal brilliantly with some of them. Others require close thinking through.

As I mentioned last time, I believe the primary motivation behind filial piety is gratitude--showing rightful apprecation for the tremendous benefits we have received from our parents. Pagans have been at the forefront of recognizing our duties to the Mother who bore us all, who continues to feed, clothe, and comfort us--and who daily suffers the depredations of our thoughtless exploitation. The importance of protecting the Earth has not been lost on us. Though it is all too easy to give in to complacency and laziness, we should all continue to seek ways to minimize the damage we do in our daily lives and implement them.

Another problem is more difficult, and it is a question that I deal with frequently. The contemporary Pagan movement tends to be made up of rather independent people. We seek out our own paths, are sometimes reluctant to make commitments, and keep our own counsel--though groupthink can rear its ugly head anywhere, and often does within particular communities. This independence is not a bad thing. It gives Paganism its vibrant diversity and prevents spiritual stagnation.

But independence has its prices. For some of us, it may be more difficult to see the benefits that we gained from where we came from. After all, very few of us were born into Pagan families. We took up our respective Pagan paths for good (hopefully) reasons. This can make it difficult for us to see the ways we may have benefited from how we were brought up. And some of us (alas, myself) may sometimes find it difficult or unpleasant to look on ways that we have depended on or benefited from others in the past.

It can be easy to forget our parents, especially given the mobility of the modern world. We might find ourselves half a continent away. In America, we do indeed have certain days set aside for remembering and honoring our parents--Mother's Day and Father's Day. It is my recommendation that, as people who recognize and honor the immanent divinity within a world birth, death, and rebirth, we remind ourselves of those responsible for our own particular births, and honor the way that the Great Mystery worked to bring about our lives.

Of course, this kind of filial piety is not the same kind that existed in the ancient world. It cannot be; one aspect of filial piety in those times was carrying on the religious traditions of the family. Not a live possibility for most of us, I suspect. But in keeping that ancient aspect in mind, we might be reminded that religion is important. Perhaps it is unwise to step away from the tradition we grew up in without good reasons. At the very least, we should avoid the spiritual consumerism that plagues American culture in general, including Pagan culture. Being Pagan ought not be a facile identification to give our lives a veneer of purpose without any substance or real work underneath. (Which all piety--and not just the filial kind--requires)

Speaking of putting substance to our words, my great aunt is very old, and is not getting on as well as she used to. I have too often been negligent in going to see her these last few months, so I will leave this post at that, and pay a visit.

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