Tag Archives: religions

Religion in context

The converting tendencies of Christianity and Islam have given a perspective of the place of religion at odds with many perspectives. Most religions are not universal, nor meant to be. Judaism is the religion of a people, and I have recently discovered that Shinto is Japanese to a degree that would make a nonsense of outsiders trying to practice it. Romans venerated their Emperors. Faiths do not exist in a vacuum. They exist in a social context, as part of a culture. They may be interacting with other cultures – the relationships between Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto are, from a superficial look, clearly very complicated. The relationship between politics and religion is equally long and messy. Just think of the divinely sanctioned rulers, and the rulers who became gods.

There is a vast difference between mediaeval Christianity, and any of the modern interpretations. And I would bet at least as much difference again to the people who started it. How much of Christianity belongs in the landscape of its origin? What happens when we take a religion out of its place of origin and give it to people from a different culture? Can it hope to be the same religion? If I took up Buddhism, or Taoism, could I really follow those paths with the same depth as someone whose whole culture was steeped in them?

Then there’s issues of language. Words in translation are always imperfect, there are seldom tidy matches that carry all the same subtext and nuance. Often, there are words that just don’t exist, ideas that one language cannot embody. I see this in Buddhist writing, where words like ‘ego’ and ‘empty’ are employed to mean things that we do not usually use them to express. I have a feeling that if I read these ideas in their original language, and met those words in their true form, I could have a chance at understanding something that currently is beyond me.

I’m very conscious of not living in a Celtic culture. My blood ancestry has some Celtic in it, and, having grown up with folklore and mythology, I got steeped a bit, I feel this culture as my own heritage, which may help me. But I’m aware that I can only ever be a Druid of my time. This is one of the reasons that I think deep relationship with the land, the trees, the spirits of place, is so vital. Religions do pass through cultures and different ways of seeing the world. Something survives, but something also changes. Interesting to ask what is vital and intrinsic, and what we can afford to let go of. It’s easiest to keep the surface things like costumes and settings, hardest to keep the understandings that belong to another time, another people. But should we? How important is continuity? Should we be more concerned with who we are and what we do now? I see a risk that we will imagine continuity far more easily than we will truly find it.

The world I live in is not the world of my grandmother. My son will inherit a place that could be as different again. The language evolves continually, along with understandings of the world. Belief cannot be a constant in a changing world, belief too must inevitably be changed by everything else that we do and know. Perhaps that means that the greatest scope for Druidic thinking lies in the future, not in the past. Who knows?

What is Druidry for?

It is fair, I think, to ask what any religion, all religions, are ‘for’. Looking at religions from the outside, here are some possible answers. To make people conform. To comfort people or give them a sense of control. To placate a god or gods. To explain how the inexplicable works. To provide power and authority for an elite few. To support and teach a moral code. If we consider the function of a religion from the position of being inside one, broad answers might include… to become a better person. To belong to a group or community. To know how to live. To secure a place in the afterlife. To avoid the wrath of the gods in this life. To experience the divine. To make up for other gaps or insufficiencies in life. I’m conscious of creating a rather negative list there.

Atheists have many critiques of religion, especially around subject like authority, control, and the alleviation of existential fears. Many non-religious people see religion as a comfort blanket, a fantasy way of trying not to experience the world as it really is. God as imaginary friend and faith as delusion. There are religions, periods, and places where the relationship between faith and control is not comfortable, or has been an issue.

It’s possible that ancient Druidry had the power element in it, but modern Druidry doesn’t. No modern Druid has a great deal of clout, or earns silly money from their Druidic work. Not least because we do not have a captive audience, people vote with their feet and anyone in it for fame and fortune is unlikely to last for long. There’s no political advantage to gain, no ears of Kings waiting for us to whisper into. I see this as entirely a good thing. There being no agreed book or set of rules to turn to, conformity clearly isn’t part of Druidry, and we don’t have a clear moral code.

So what is Druidry for? I don’t think many modern Druids turn up with a desire to explain where thunder comes from or why the crops failed. Most of us don’t seem to be looking for divination, good omens for our next cattle raid, blessings for a war, or many other things we know the ancients generally used religion for. Are we asking the gods to intervene on our behalf and make life easier? I don’t know. Most Druids of my acquaintance keep their relationships with deity private. Not all Druids even believe in deity in an anthropomorphic sense.

Many aspects of modern Druidry call for no faith at all. Service, peace work, community building, questing for and sharing inspiration, seeking a green and sustainable life – plenty of non-Druids do all the same things as us for much the same reasons and feel no need to self identify as Druids at all. However, many of us do actively seek for a sense of connection with something sacred.

Modern life is underpinned, increasingly by a rather reductionist sort of rationalism. It’s all about utility, wealth generation, and material comfort. Science takes things apart to see how they work, and does that very well, but does not tell us how to hold relationship with what it finds. Modern life is consciously, deliberately mundane. Growing up means ceasing to believe in faeries, Father Christmas, benevolent leaders, fairness, unicorns, the inherent goodness of people, dragons, day dreams, and anything capable of inspiring awe and wonder. Life does not require you to feel inspired or filled with awe. Modern life wants you to earn more money to pay off the loan you took out to buy the new shiny thing.

Druidry is very much a religion of re-enchantment, I think. It is very much about building a new kind of relationship with the world, a new way of seeing, and feeling and being. It’s not a rejection of science or rationalism, but a capacity to think of quarks with a sense of amazement. Know how the rainbow is formed, and still be inspired by one. Understand the earthquake, but still feeling the energy and spirit within it. Druidry is about a rejection of the idea that everything is commodity, and that only utility and cost are relevant measures. Whether we believe in deity or not, I think Druidry is a quest to rediscover how to be moved by the world, and how to move within it as a feeling being experiencing awe, delight, horror, and all the other emotions that modern life seems inclined to squash.

Writing this I realise that my answer to ‘what is Druidry for?’ defines it very much in relation to the present moment and a wider, cultural setting. If the quest for enchantment succeeds, and we develop a collective ability to see the world with new eyes, the role of Druidry will change. Perhaps the next question to ask is what we do with that sense of enchantment and possibility. That could keep us busy for a while!

Laughing at Religion

Humans use comedy and laughter in many ways. We do it to deflate tension and mask fear, to mark boundaries of who is in and who is out. We do it to deflate ego and tackle pomposity. Laughter is the only weapon, sometimes, that the disadvantaged have against the powerful. It can be tremendously subversive, but also culturally bonding. Laugher is dangerous, so how we relate it to that most serious of subjects – religion – is an interesting question.

It is natural to fear ridicule, and as religion tends to be very personal, the mocking of religions can translate into the mocking of the faithful. Where the humour is about pointing and laughing at the silly people, this can feel alienating, and like your most sacred things are a joke to others. Pagans get a lot of this, in the media. This is in part because we look different and are an easy target, a bit like morris dancers. I happen to think most men in bells look silly, but I love morris dancing nonetheless. That which is funny adds colour to life, which is a good thing. I think the pointing and laughing is good, in an odd way. All religions are prone to pomposity, which is inherently foolish, and to costumes and rituals that become all about show and lose their substance. The laughter of irreverent outsiders can do a lot to keep us focused on what really matters, and to keep us honest.

Really good comedy depends on insight. I am better placed than a non-druid to make druid jokes, because I know the silliness we, and our ancestors of tradition get up to. If I use it for comic effect, I may do something productive. Jewish culture is full of jokes about Judaism and Jewish people, offered in a self-depreciating way to the outside world. That fascinates me. I have learned from it, and the main effect has been to improve my understanding and respect. I am aware that jokes about Islam result in death threats, sometimes. This makes me wary of comedy about Islam, but if we ever get the equivalent of ‘The Imman of Dibley’ onto the TV, I will know that a wonderful, cultural revolution has occurred. Irony, parody, and sophisticated word play comedy depend on knowledge, and on the audience knowing as much as the jester. To be jokeable about, is to be understood, at least a bit. The day I hear a mainstream comedian making cracks about Druids, is the day I know the world is really taking us seriously.

Where laughter is shared,, groups and individuals bond. Laugher breaks the ice, breaks down social barriers, and a shared joke gives common points of cultural reference and a sense of belonging. Jokes within a community, about itself, can therefore be important markers of belonging. Religion serves a function in terms of cultural belonging and a sense of place. Laughter and comedy have a role to play in that, and if we resent the giggling at sacred things, the shooting down of sacred cows, the laughter at expense of doctrine and leadership, we miss out. It is healthy to make jokes about religions. Fearing laughter is not healthy, I think.

Challenges to faith are not a bad thing. When the laughter comes from the outside, that can feel like an assault to pride, dignity, and all that we value. But like anything that tests us, it also gives us a chance to walk our talk. For me as a druid, the tradition of satire is an important one. If someone makes a joke at my expense, or the expense of my faith, my religious position is to try and come up with a better one, or a stronger way of laughing back. Each religion has its own ways but I have no doubt each can contribute to how we handle laugher coming in from the outside.

Laughter, when it hits hard, is the most amazing loss of control. It’s also more socially acceptable than a wild excess of weeping, or lust, or anger. When laughter takes hold, tears stream, bodies rock, motor control goes. Extreme laugher makes us weak and vulnerable, in a physical sense. We can therefore only do it when we feel safe. It takes us out of ourselves, something is broken down when we are overcome in this way. I believe that laughter, like all other powerful emotional events, has the potential to be a religious experience in its own right. Why should all religion be po-faced and melancholy? Surely god can be as present in a giggle as in solemnity?

The sacred is bigger than us, pretty much by definition. The only things we hurt with laughter are fragile, human egos. If there are gods, they are not human. Mostly, we do not laugh at the gods, we laugh at the strange things it occurs to people to do in the name of deity. Sometimes we laugh because that’s better than weeping. When we laugh, we are human. When we laugh, we are not killing each other. Warm hearted laughter is not the beginning of aggression. Hate is a cold, and joyless thing and those who hate will find it just as intolerable to face the gigglers. If we can laugh at ourselves, and the things we do, the odds are, we aren’t going to kill anyone, and given the history of religions worldwide, that would be a good development.

The coming of autumn

The shortening of days is becoming more apparent, as we move into autumn, here in the UK. The first signs of leaves turning, the swallows gathering ready to migrate, and the falling temperature all show that summer is ending. We move towards the darker time of the year.

I love the colours of autumn, and in a slightly perverse way, I love the sadness of it. Autumn is the time of letting go, the relinquishing of summer, of leaves and colour as we head for the cold, damp greys of winter. It is a reminder that all things must pass, that nothing is forever. Life, beauty and joy can be such fleeting things, and it is essential to embrace them as they come, because nothing lasts and you never know what may slip through your fingers. I believe in making the best of things as they come.

Druidry honours the full range of life and experience – the dark times as well as the light, the cold days as well as the brightness of summer. We honour the lean times as well as the rich ones. I try very hard to relate to when I am in the year, to engage with it and find what is good in it. But at the same time, winters are hard, and this winding down towards colder, darker days I tend to find difficult. But again, there is nothing in my Druidry that requires me to happily celebrate this time of year, only to recognise and to honour the processes both within and without.

For folk who are assured of warmth and ease, the winter can be a snug, cheery time, the weather not a major intrusion on their lives, the central heating protection from temperature. I’ve never had that. I’ve never had a car, and walking, or cycling in the depths of winter, in freezing rain, or with ice on the ground, is really hard. I’ve never had central heating. Keeping a fire in takes work – much less now I have a Tom, but in previous years that’s been a struggle all by itself. Keeping warm, getting clothes dry without a tumble drier, and all the other simple details of living are harder in winter for me. I’m conscious that my ancestors would have had similar issues.

Looking towards the coming winter – my first winter on a boat – I have no idea what to expect. It’s a small space to heat, and it’s inherently snug, but last year the canal froze, and I have no idea what that would be like. I’m trying to relate to that as a potential adventure. Last year, walking beside the frozen canal was beautiful, and I saw a lot of wildlife. Watching the trees change through the autumn will also be beautiful, along with watching the migrant birds come for the winter. There will be much to celebrate and enjoy. The trick, so far as I can tell, is to focus on the good stuff, and to re-shape life around it, rather than trying to use resources to maintain ways of life that do not fit with the prevailing conditions. I’ll shift my working and playing patterns to follow the availability of natural light. I’ll crotchet more in the darker months because I don’t actually need to see to do that. I will also mourn the departure of summer, because that’s part of the process too.

The one thing I am absolutely certain of is that nothing, and no one, should tell us how to feel about anything. I’m very wary of anything that tries to instruct about feelings. Humans do not all feel the same way, and I do not believe there is any one right way to feel in any circumstance. I’m also conscious that some of the time, what religions do is very specifically try and shape how we feel, pushing us towards certain emotional responses to the world. This is also true, sometimes, of Druidry, especially around the solar narrative of the year. We are supposed to feel like trees. We are supposed to be full of energy at midsummer and resting quietly and midwinter.

I am not a tree.

I’m also very wary of anything that prescribes greeting each new thing with unbridled joy and enthusiasm. I do not happen to like the ice. I respect it, but I’m not going to dance with it. Ice does not make me happy, it makes me afraid. I find extreme summer temperatures equally unappealing, I am not a total sun worshipper either. I like the inbetween times, the days that are neither one thing or another. As I honour what happens outside, I also have come to respect what happens inside me as being my own, natural reaction to things, and to hold that response as something I am entitled to. I’m wondering if this means I can sneak a few hours today to honour my inner sloth.