Perils of Scripturalisation

I read a lot of blogs from a variety of religious perspectives (and a lot that don’t touch on religious subjects at all), as I’ve mentioned. And one of the things I saw recently was talking about prophets, and continuing revelation, and what does it mean for a thing to be scripture.

(It means trouble. With a capital T, and that rhymes with … oh, someone else finish this filk for me, I have systematic theological analysis to write.)

I tend towards the opinion that one of the things that separates pagan religious experience from a lot of mainstream religious experience is this lack of scripture, and everything that comes with it. (Though of course this is one of those places that people get stuck on when converting, because there is no Holy Book to look to for immediate guidance.)

We have ancient texts, but these are not scripture. They are poetry, they are drama, they are magical works, they are written-down oral tradition, and this is an entirely different beast. They are not presented as Words From On High, “god-breathed” – even when those texts are said to be derived from the work of a god, as is the case of some magical texts in Egypt. We have the surviving pieces of the tales people told about themselves and about the Powers and about the cosmos, the surviving evidence for how people interacted with it in practice, and this is not scripture. This is story.

There are times that I have a lot of sympathy for the ancient Celtic belief that writing down the sacred tales and the sacred rites would kill them – that it would pin them in place like a sort of spiritual lepidoptery and let the form overwhelm the function.

I think about that whenever I see someone take the Negative Confessions list from the Papyrus of Ani as some sort of codified, universal scriptural code of behaviour, demonstrating not only unfamiliarity with the Papyrus of Nu and other surviving lists, but of the range and variety of ways in which those lists were personalised, the way they evolved over time, the way that that was a book explicitly and specifically written for an individual who may or may not have said “Just give me the standard text, bub” when ordering their copy at the scribe. (And I still greatly regret not having been able to attend the lecture I heard about – or being able to see the research notes of the lecturer – where the sheer variety of confession lists in those scrolls was discussed. Because I’m pretty sure that someone would eventually try to universalise the one that had something like “I didn’t fail to build my neighbour’s house to code and thus cause the death of his child when the wall fell in” on it.)

I think about it whenever I see someone ask “Which creation myth do you actually believe“, or talk about the Heliopolitan creation myth as if it is canonical, universal, and the only way of imagining the transition from before there were two things to the time of millions of things. Or when I see people noting that ancient threads managed, at some level, to reconcile the Heliopolitan, the Hermepolitan, and the Memphite myths, as if those are the only ones we have. (Honestly, I would love to have more that I could roll around in, but I may be odd like that. The little bits of Nit’s creation story that I’ve found delight me.)

I think about it when I see people want to turn a recommended reading list into a This Is Your Bible list. And then get bogged down in which translator is the holiest one, or which modern writer is truly inspired, truly in possession of the spark of the divine, because clearly a religion needs holy books, that’s what we learned from the Abrahamic revolution, right?

And I understand that it’s hard. That I grew up, too, in a culture of the sacred book, the scriptural thing, the place where people can say “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” and not have that come across as some excessively ungrounded mystic system but actually having reference to a Text With Authority.

But I worry about people finding new texts to set up in place of the Powers.

I worry about people closing themselves off to experience of the divine – and the world – as it is, because it has to be brought into accord with texts which were never intended to be exclusive, but rather part of the vast realm of exploration of what the world might look like.

I worry about the death of poetry, because if there is scriptural poetry, particularly special holy poetry that is true and perfected and better, then who will write the new hymns? Who will tell the stories of the gods in new lands? (And one of my first devotional works was a short poem titled “Seth beyond the borders of Egypt”, which was, in part, an exploration of the rending of Wesir in a context in which there is seasonal rain, not the flood. If this is not a part of the corpus of work dealing with and exploring the nature of the gods, then the gods are closed off to me in a fundamental way: Set is not in my thunderstorms, and Osiris is not in my rain.)

I worry that this notion that there must be a holy book is even more exclusionary than the limitation of magical texts to the literate in a population that mostly could not read: because it creates a form of separation between the true magic of language and the power of spoken words, and the language that you can I can use. Because it re-establishes the Fall, in pagan terms, without ever admitting that it is a claim that now is a sinful and degenerate time, incapable of the truest forms of devotion.

Ecumenical

I went to Paganicon again this year, though I did not present because – as you can probably tell from the fact that this is my first post since the autumn – it has been a rough couple of seasons.

I actually went to fewer rituals this year than last – just the one – but I wound up leaving that one and pondering the nature of the skillset required to attend other people’s rituals. I don’t know that a lot of people have actually thought much about that one, though it’s been relevant to some of the conversations I’ve seen going around.

It’s pretty much a given for me that if I’m attending a public ritual, I’m going to have to adapt on the fly in order for it to be meaningful for me. There are very few public rituals out there that are conducted in my symbolic idiom, just to start with, and of those, I’ve not encountered many that are actually done by coreligionists; sometimes, actually, it’s even more jarring to deal with ritual to the Powers I honor or using symbols I recognise, because if it’s being done in a way totally alien to how I conduct myself the cognitive dissonance can get really bad.

So when I’m considering attending a public ritual, I have to not only judge whether I want to participate in the purpose and perhaps whether or not I can honour the relevant Powers (if any) or usefully associate them with my own Powers, but figure out whether or not I can manage the relevant translations. The odds are good that most public ritual will be in a Wiccish format in most places, for example, or at least some kind of open-source Craft, and I can do that if need be – I’ve had to learn. But I’m unlikely to get much out of it, in the grand scheme of things.

I wound up thinking about this because of the Golden Calf ritual, where there was a part of me appreciating the spectacle of the staging, part of me dealing with the fact that I’ve researched enough Judaism to get some of the juxtapositions, a part of me dealing with my own Powers’ bleedthrough as I translated idiom and actually got something out of it. But it was a very complex and cerebral experience for me.

There are times I don’t want cerebral. I just want the thing that works. And I’m dealing with a lot of liturgically heavy stuff – which is pretty brain-oriented rather than gut-oriented – but.

I don’t know. I’m stoned to the gills on Sudafed and not at my most coherent, but I was reminded of this thought.

Omphaloskepsis

I read a lot of blogs. Some of them more closely than others.

But my RSS reader sucks down stuff on a huge variety of topics: blogs about children and childcare, blogs about weaving, blogs about the law, tech blogs, political blogs, science blogs, linguistics, commentary, writing.

And, of course, the religious blogs. Kemetics, heathens, witches, magicians, Baptists, Mormons, Jews, Church of England….

I worry, sometimes, about my communities. I go to slacktivist and get extensive sets of links to matters of social justice, politics, concern about the ascendancy of conservative Christianity, critique of the public construct of religion, and a whole lot of other food for thought; I visit Richard Beck (who I linked to back in June) I find discussions of prison ministry, of the perils of complementarianism, of the theology in karaoke, of the nature of power and the nature of evil; I go to the Velveteen Rabbi and find questions of how to properly live the values of the week’s reading, wrestling with forgiveness and family and despair and truth and the nature of holy land.

I find a lot of stuff that’s real, and vital, and while it’s rooted in one religious tradition or another speaks to the human experience, human needs. And these people often link to other people doing some of the same substantial work, wrestling with their religion and with the world like Jacob wrestling with the angel at the ford.

I commented a while back that the more actually religious I get, the better I get at doing religion, the more the gods send me away. The more I am told to heal the ancestors, to understand the nature of power and of evil, to demonstrate that Opet actually means something in the world by organising a community to do charitable work, to think about what my devotions actually mean in terms of politics and society. And the more my mysticism deepens, the more I pay attention to holy mother death and other things about the patterns of death and life and the great breaths of the year. And these are not separate and separable things, the chiaroscuro of time and the need to understand the shape of presence within the world rather than separation from it.

In the end I worry, sometimes, about transcendentalists.

This Year for Opet

Opet, as before noted, is fiddly.

However, this year some folks (primarily at eCauldron) have gotten organised about it, and we’ve formed a Kiva lending team, called The Emboatening Crew. We have thus far emboatened one person, have nearly finished emboatening a second, and have a third loan queued up.

If you’re not on Kiva already and join using that link, you (and I) will get a free loan token worth $25 – I believe both our current targets for emboatening can be helped with that money. If you are on Kiva, we’d be happy to have more folks helping us with our Opet charitable work.

This is what communities are for.

Perils of Overintellectualisation

I am at the moment working on a manuscript for work (which I am enjoying immensely, and if I ever get my shit together and make a Recommended Book List For The Stuff I Do I will probably put this on it, because for a book about Shinto it is brilliantly Kemetically-relevant – though I’ve long thought Shinto had a lot to reveal to Kemetics).

One of the things the author keeps talking about is a resistance to theologising, to thinking too much about religious matters, rather than performing the recitations and rituals appropriately.

Which is a thing that I think is worth keeping in mind – that the idea that religious thought must be tightly systematised is likely not entirely native to practices that we are reconstructing, regardless of the culture of origin of those practices.

Too much thinking about it gets in the way of doing it, as I commented before. Too much being bound up in being Right about the way to do things rather than doing them, likewise. “Here are three ways of interpreting this word in context” is not something that sits easily with a lot of theologies, that are all about trying to make things tidy and clean and clear, rather than the ways that three different things layer to create a complicated nuanced thing which is all and one and none of these things.

A message I can take from what I’ve read so far goes something like, “Out there, there is the world; relate to it with clean senses and a pure heart. That is the natural and divine way of being.”

Not bad, for Kemetic ponders, is it?

Spiritual Convection

Doing a bit of reading has me pondering basic cosmological structures. Which I touched on, briefly, when I posted the map that was published in the Guide, but I’m looking from a different angle at the moment.

There is a gradient of formlessness and form to be seen in that image of the cosmos: we, resident primarily in the world of that which is knowable and known, visible and seen, bounded and contained, and having a distinct shape, have our residence primarily in the top half of the world, where potential has, for the most part, been realised – or is in the process of becoming so.

But if we enter the akhet and the realms of dream, the residences of the blessed and mighty dead, the personal homes of the gods, we have crossed a gate to a realm in which shapeshifting – a subject of a huge number of spells – is common, though one must take care not to adopt a form that falls too close to formlessness (such as a fish), where the rules of the seen world risk becoming inverted, and the powers can be seen more readily wearing their own faces.

And if we go deeper, the perils are sharper – the nightmare forms dwelling in Rosetjau, the lair of the enemy.

And if we go deeper still, back into the depths of the past and the bottom of the bottomless, the very edge of being where it melts into the Nun, we find the Mysteries, through which possibility and growth are released into the world of the existent, to bubble upwards, conveyed by the Boat of Millions towards the surface, carrying life by which forms may be animated.

It is true that the ancestors are guardians of the flow of life into and out of the Duat, that their blessings come with the turnings of the year: the ancestors are the mirror into which we look, seeking our origins. The flow of that which the gods bring up from the Nun passes through their hands as it reaches the gates of morning.

And of that we make worlds. We choose how we conduct our lives, we eat and offer and live, and we pass back the forms that we have created into the akhet in the evening, in the shapes of our dreams, the passage of our travelling souls, our own selves when we come to our mooring day.