What happens when we run into something – be it an individual, or an organisation with such radically different beliefs to our own, that there is no scope for finding common ground or areas of overlap? For pagans, encountering people for whom your world view simply does not exist, is not an unusual experience. It’s not a problem exclusive to us – every field of study and human endeavour has scope for paradigm clashes. I know many pagan folk who have found themselves at odds with their families, because of irreconcilable beliefs. Such situations can be painful indeed.
I was exposed to post modernism at college. I learned that there is seldom any such thing as objective truth, there is only the perspective you are looking at things from, the beliefs influencing your perceptions, your own capacity to understand, and so forth. Two people can understand the same experience in totally different ways – with all due reference to the story about the blind men and the elephant. However, in that story, we can see that the blind men are each experiencing an aspect of elephant, their impressions are not irreconcilable with elephant, even if they cannot be reconciled to each other. Given a bit of time and encouragement, I have no doubt that these chaps could have figured things out.
We talk about the elephant in the room. I assume that’s generally taken to be a different metaphorical elephant, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe when things are hard, difficult to talk about, when we can’t reconcile our take with someone else’s we do need to recognise there is potentially an elephant in the room, and that we are only experiencing a part of it. Until we know what the other person perceives, we can’t get a grasp of the whole shape.
So at what point is it that we should refuse to accept another person’s conflicting take on things? When do we say “yes, there is an elephant in the room but you haven’t got to it yet.” When do we write someone else’s perspective off as insane? No doubt we all have at some point – religious fanatics of one brand or another being obvious candidates. We all have people we deem ‘nutters’ and whose opinions we ascribe to paranoia, or a flawed relationship with reality. It’s very easy to do that and avoid considering that another take holds merit when it is wildly at odds with how we understand things to be. And equally, there are folk out there whose opinions we have to deem hopelessly wrong.
There’s a mental dance here that calls for both flexibility, and the knowledge of when to stand firm. When to listen, consider and accept the difference, when to learn, when to reject a lesson. After all, we can all get things wrong, especially when we only have a partial understanding.
I think all that we can rely on when it comes to these clashes of ideology, is honour. If a position is honourable, but flawed, or misguided, or partial, that’s very different from a position that is inherently dishonourable, or that facilitates dishonourable behaviour. When you meet a belief that challenges you, ask what purpose it serves. If it functions to oppress, bully, restrict or undermine, reject it. If the effects are neutral, you can disregard it, or learn from it as you prefer. If you encounter a belief or idea that enables someone to do their work in the world, to stand up with courage, to maintain their integrity, then even if you don’t agree with it, that has to be worthy of respect.