Virginia recognizes me as clergy!

My reapplication today was successful! The Arlington County Court has officially granted me authorization to perform marriages.

Literata with authorization

The process was not entirely painless. Once again, the person who handles the paperwork – I’m not sure if she’s a secretary or what – asked for my congregation’s physical location. I told her that I had applied before, and that there was some confusion over this, because my group worships in multiple places. She then asked where they could contact me if they had any questions about a marriage license. (Note that she didn’t ask that the first time I applied – if all they had wanted then was my contact information, I would have gladly given it to them.) I indicated that my personal contact information on the letter I had included with my paperwork would be the way to contact me.

She had to go get approval from someone else; she said that the person who wrote the reply to Americans United for Separation of Church and State had to review my new application and paperwork. That took a little while, but she came back and said that it was approved, and then it was a matter of paying the fee, taking an oath to uphold the Constitution and the Constitution of Virginia and to do my duty fairly and impartially, and then I got the official authorization!

I sincerely hope that this means Wiccans and Pagans applying to the Arlington County Court will have less trouble having their authorizations granted in the future. I’m delighted to have my official recognition, of course, but this was never just about me. It’s small steps like this that break new ground along the path to full recognition, where Wicca and other Pagan religions are afforded the full benefit of equal treatment under the law.

For anyone who wants to apply in Arlington in the future, here’s what I took with me: Certificate of Ordination; Letter of good standing (to show that I am “in regular contact” with my religious organization); Certified copies of the articles of incorporation of the Order of the White Moon, the most recent business filing with California showing that the Order is still active; Copies of the letter from the IRS granting OWM its 501(c)3 tax exempt status and the most recent filing with the IRS showing that OWM is still active and exempt; Letters of support from Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, Ivo Dominguez Jr. of the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel, and Sacred Circle bookstore, attesting to my standing as a priestess and the ministry I do; and a letter of support from a coven sister who also lives in Arlington, because the court insisted that I show “a connection between [my] ministry and the Arlington community.”

My coven sister went with me to support her letter and act as a witness, and my husband also came to be a witness. I cannot thank them enough for taking time out of their busy schedules. Their presence helped tremendously, and I am sure that her letter showing a direct, personal connection to Arlington was a key piece of evidence to meet the court’s standards.

I am also deeply and sincerely grateful to everyone who supported me, especially Selena Fox, Ivo Dominguez, and my sisters in the Order of the White Moon; my thanks also go out to everyone who put energy into resolving this issue and making a positive difference for Pagan civil rights. The personal and magical support I got was amazing, and it made all the difference in the world. Thank you all.

I would like to particularly thank Americans United for Separation of Church and State, especially Ben Hazelwood, who worked with me directly. They sent the letters that showed the Arlington County Court in no uncertain terms that their actions were legally indefensible and got the court to clarify its requirements so that I could make this reapplication successful.

This is not the first time they have gone to bat for Pagan rights, either, as they were intimately involved with Selena Fox and the Lady Liberty League in bringing the Pentacle Quest to a successful conclusion. I strongly encourage all Pagans to support these organizations that are doing the hard work of defending our rights when we need it most.

RD on Americans and their cars

After I mused about how Asphaltia’s influence spread along with the interstate highway system, it is interesting to see Religion Dispatches picking up on a related theme. The piece describes Michele Bachmann’s promise to return gas prices to $2 a gallon as tapping into some of Americans’ self-constructed myths about the sacred and the self:

The federal highway system — the real America — on the other hand, operates as widely dispersed, center-less system for individual travelers on separate routes, an enactment of the American protestant primordial act: the prioritizing, centering and sacralizing of the individual in pursuit of their own happiness.

I would argue that although Paganism is about connection, at its best, it tries to balance the individual and the group, prizing both and the connections between them. This is why grounding and centering can be a group act as well as an individual one. What do you think? How do Pagans construct their myths of the center, the sacred, and the self, and how do they relate to this idea of cars and travel?

How CS Lewis Taught Me Astrology

CS Lewis’ fictional descriptions helped me understand the qualities of the five classical planets because he retained pagan elements in the Medieval worldview that he studied and loved.

I have written before about why I prefer other forms of divination over astrology, but for some of my recent lessons in the Order of the White Moon, astrology became important, so I set out to become at least minimally more familiar with it. In the process of doing so, I made a strange discovery: some of my deepest visceral understanding of astrology draws on the work of Christian apologist CS Lewis.

Specifically, it comes from the final book in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, an attempt at a sort of sci-fi Christian allegory. At heart, though, Lewis is a medievalist, and like Dante, he has to make space for those virtuous pagans and their ideas that he could not bear to leave behind. (Please note that I use lowercase for classical paganism or what Bonewits described as paleo-paganisms.)

In The Discarded Image, Lewis’ book on medieval cosmology, he says, “Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination.” (203) He goes on to admit: “I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree.” (216) While he admits that there is a tiny problem in that the old cosmology was scientifically inaccurate, but being well aware of the changes in scientific ontology and epistemology around the turn of the 20th century, he feels free to use the fall of positivism as a defense for his romantic fascination.

A much more serious concern for him is that the truly classical worldview, rediscovered in the medieval period, was not Christian. He integrates his beloved Model with Christianity by, among other things, characterizing the spirits of the planets as a kind of angel, fitting them neatly into the Great Chain of Being without disrupting its hierarchical structure, following the lead of many thinkers both medieval and modern who concluded that they had found in Christianity the name of the Aristotelian Prime Mover.

The Space Trilogy reads to me as an extended series of musings on how the hybrid vigor of this revitalized (and redeemed?) medieval mythology might play out in today’s world(s). It starts out with establishing the cosmos and Earth’s place in it; the second book reimagines a new creation-redemption myth; the third brings the consequences back to Earth with a quasi-apocalyptic tale that fuses the trippy imagery of Arthur C. Clarke with the assurance of epic meaning through spiritual warfare of Frank Peretti.

Lewis was trying to work with sci-fi, but the result reads more like fantasy kludged with his contemporary technology. Since his protagonist, like himself, is a scholar of languages and liberal arts, neither of them has any interest in the science and the narrative takes pains to spare the reader any potentially boringly-detailed discussions of the technology. Much more interesting are his interpretations of the angelic beings of different orders; he dwells lovingly on the sensations of being near them and speculates about how they might exist, using all the best medieval metaphors, such as “vibrations.”

Throughout it all runs the deep certainty of the apologist and the massively kyriarchical assumptions of the utterly privileged. To me, there is also a whisper of the sense that readers can vicariously enjoy the protagonist’s place at the center of universe-shaking action in lieu of their own frustrated desires to have a more important role in the epic narrative their theology lays out for them. With all of this in mind, I should point out that That Hideous Strength, the third in the trilogy, is a deeply weird book and not one I recommend to the casual reader – but…

For me, Lewis certainly succeeded in his project to bring a deeper understanding of the Medieval cosmology to the modern mind. Near the end of That Hideous Strength, the powers that inhabit the five classical planets descend to Earth, and Lewis chronicles the effects each of them has on a core group of characters. Those accounts stuck in my mind as the most vivid ways of understanding the influences of each of these planets, much more clearly than any information gleaned from the original myths, perhaps because Lewis does write from the human perspective.

Mercury brings puns and “plays upon thoughts, paradoxes, fancies, anecdotes, theories laughingly advanced yet (on consideration) well worth taking seriously…skyrockets of metaphor and allusion.” (318) Lewis’ own allusions to the qualities of literal mercury lead to him describing how “all the fragments – needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts – went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves,” much as is experienced when poetry brings “the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.” (319)

Lewis is more sparing in his descriptions of Venus’ effects, sparing the delicate sensibilities of his English readers. We do see that Venus brings warmth, comfort, and sweetness; good scents and a feeling of being rocked on the ocean touch “the inconsolable wound with which man is born.” (320) The effect is one of desire, but holy desire, which can never be fully satisfied in the sublunar realm.

The arrival of Mars stirs discussion of courage in terms that are the essence of British masculinity in the World Wars. The people are unafraid to die, and the martial splendor overwhelms any petty concern with dangers. Interestingly, here Lewis also alludes to Northern European mythology by syncretizing Mars with “Tyr who put his hand in the wolf-mouth.” (322)

Saturn comes next, with cold, the cold of the depths of space where even stars fizzle themselves out into the heat-death of the universe. It is the embodiment of time, “more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.” (323) This mastery of the depths gives Saturn a kind of immovable strength, but all its power is suffused with sorrow.

Last, in Lewis’ descent of the gods, is Jove. I get the impression that he is placed there because he is the only spirit which can overmaster Saturn, and Lewis is too much of a storyteller to leave readers on the ending without a conclusion that Saturn creates.

Lewis first describes Jove as “one whose influence tempered and almost transformed to his own quality the skill of leaping Mercury, the clearness of Mars, the subtler vibration of Venus, and even the numbing weight of Saturn.”

The further account was the first to make me understand how the adjective “jovial” was originally meant to combine kingly dignity and hearty revelry; Lewis says that under Jove’s influence, “Though you were a cripple, your walk would have become stately: though a beggar, you would have worn your rags magnanimously,” (323) and that all the characters feel as if they are at some royal festival.

The vividness and human perspective of these interpretations was what helped most as I was trying to make sense of different planets’ roles in astrology, so I can honestly say that Lewis, bless his Christian medievalist heart, was the first to teach me astrology, and his lessons remain with me today.

This sort of connection through preservation of earlier knowledge is an example of how Neo-Paganism can justifiably count paleo-paganism among its spiritual ancestors; what it means today is what we have to create for ourselves – not even the stars can tell us that.

Working, not fasting

My response to the conservative Christian day of prayer and fasting – Rick Perry’s “The Response” rally – will be to spend Saturday working and eating, because I think that the problems Perry and company want to turn over to their god for supernatural solutions are better addressed by human action.

There have been a number of prayer rallies around the nation named “The Call,” and now Rick Perry has put together “The Response,” all of which say they are modeled on an ancient example of petitioning the Judeo-Christian god for the renewal of the nation of Israel in a time of crisis. Perry’s message on the webpage of The Response says:

“Right now, America is in crisis…As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy. Some problems are beyond our power to solve … There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.”

I think Perry is wrong: there are few problems to which we cannot find solutions, but if we spend our time asking for the divine to rescue us, we will not have the time and energy to find and implement those solutions. The difference between me and Perry is that I think I can make a difference with what I do here, in this world, now, in this time.

As a Pagan, I am called to engage in the world around me and to participate in it fully. I am called to live, to work, and to eat, relating to my environment and my companions. I am not called upon to absent myself or disengage, even from situations that I find frightening or dangerous, like the suggestion that “as a nation we must come together and call upon Jesus.” When a governor who might become a candidate for President explicitly allies himself with people who are willing to blame Shinto for the earthquake in Japan, who say that for Christians to be present at Muslim or Buddhist prayers would be “idolatry of the worst sort,” then I worry. But I do not retreat, and I do not withdraw.

I am called to be thankful for my freedoms, as Perry suggests, but not to his god. I am thankful that our system of government has recognized those freedoms as inherent in our human rights, and tries to live up to that declaration. My gratitude and joy in those freedoms means that my response is to protect those freedoms however I am able, especially by exercising them.

On Saturday, I will spend time on my knees. I will spend time on my knees tending my garden, to foster growth and provide herbs for my family’s meals. I will spend time on my knees meditating, to be grounded and centered, connected to that which matters most: my life, here and now, and what I do with it for myself, my communities, and my country.

I will spend time on my knees, and then I will get up and I will act, working to reduce and redress danger and injustice, to create and support life and love, wherever I can. When the opportunity presents itself, I will act politically to ensure that elected officials adhere to the First Amendment. I will act, because that is how I make hope, here and now, for freedom, especially freedom of religion.

Cross-posted at Hail Columbia.

Review: Edghill, Bell, Book, and Murder

Edghill, Rosemary. Bell, Book, and Murder: The Bast Novels. Paperback, 448 pages. Forge, 1998. Omnibus edition of Speak Daggers to Her, 1994, Book of Moons, 1995, and The Bowl of Night, 1996, by the same author.

These three novels are set in mid-1990s New York, and follow the experiences and exploits of Bast, a Witch who has to draw on all her talents, mundane and magical, as she stumbles into a series of murders, betrayals, intrigues, and even a curse. In the first novel, one of Bast’s friends is found dead, possibly as a result of malefic magic from an unethical coven and coven leader. Bast’s investigation navigates deep currents of what magic means in the world today and how we can and should use it and respond to it; the outcome is ambiguous in some ways, which is one of the things I love about these books.

Edghill accurately represents the uncertainties of working with magic. There’s no hocus-pocus here, no Harry Potter-esque wand-waving that makes lights flicker, and not even any telepathic messages or ominous Tarot readings. There aren’t detailed accounts of rituals, either – very little of the book takes place in the setting of a circle or ceremony.  Instead, Edghill represents magic as we experience it: in the workings-out of intent in the world, with all the attendant murkiness, with multiple causes and effects intertwining, and with a distinct lack of clear-cut choices in most situations. Bast resolves the situation with the potential curse, but the resolution is as magical – or not – as the suspicion of malefic action was in the beginning, depending on how you see the whole situation. (I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers, but also because simplifying the complexities of the plot would destroy the exact effect that I appreciate about this book.)

In the second book, Bast faces the politics – good, bad, ugly, and stupid – of the magical community in the 90s, from Niceness Wicca to an S&M leather coven, from Ceremonial Magic to Womyn’s Goddess worship, plus seekers of all stripes. I can’t speak for the accuracy, not having been in that historical setting, but Edghill’s portrayals come across as incisively accurate and still a good assessment of the kinds of politics and power plays that go on between individuals and groups. Bast herself is something of an insider-outsider, giving her a chance to reflect on the biases of her own viewpoint, which is an exercise that every reader ought to engage in as well.

The third book finds Bast squarely in the middle of a confrontation between neo-Pagans, fundamentalist (often rendered hilariously as “funny-mentalist”) Christians, and the law enforcement agencies who have to try to sort everything out. Villains and potential villains abound; achieving the right relationship between law and justice is more like a complex negotiation than a straightforward set of consequences. This one is the most difficult for Bast personally but also leads to the most reflection on the hard limits to which Bast will and will not go – even in the face of desire.

These works have aged well; there are a few places where a cell phone would have really changed the plot, but those are simple enough to overlook that they don’t distract from the pleasure of reading. Since the explosion of Cunningham-type self-initiated solitaries and the fashion for “magick” (sic) among teens in the Silver Ravenwolf vein, the makeup of the community one finds at open rituals and bookstores has changed a bit, sometimes quite a bit, but the population Bast interacts with is familiar to anyone who has spent a little bit of time around Pagans and magic-users.

The only other big difference from the present day is the lack of an overarching cultural concern about war that has been present since September 11th. For those who can (or want to) cast themselves back to the seemingly idyllic 90s, when whether everyone brought potato salad to the potluck rated as a major concern, these books will be familiar territory.

I’d recommend these to anyone who is pursuing a Pagan or Wiccan path and especially people who enjoy murder mysteries. It’s great to see a well-executed example of the genre set in our sub-culture, and you might just learn something about magic and meaning along the way.

Avoid Word Salad

Hecate has another excellent post up about media relations: in short, look into the camera. Not off to the side, not at the person holding the camera, but into the camera itself, because that’s where the eyes of the people you’re talking to will be. As she says, this kind of thing is easy to miss unless it’s pointed out to you, which is why practice – even just a few sessions of practice with some friends and a computer or smartphone – will help.

I’d like to add to that by saying that using dictation software is an excellent way to see how you will come across when your words are quoted in print. Dragon Dictation is available for free for iPhone and iPad (making it another great iPad resource for Pagans). If you’re trying to get ready to present yourself in public, spend a few mock interviews with the dictation software turned on. No, it won’t capture what you say perfectly, but it probably will get all those “ums,” “ers,” “likes,” and “y’knows,” along with half-completed sentences that spill into three others and sort of wander around like Siamese zombies looking for more fragments to eat in hopes of getting themselves an actual brain until the questioner interrupts you again. See if the way you come across in print is going to help or hurt your case.

Take Sarah Palin, for example. She almost, sort of, makes sense when you see her televised or hear her speak on radio. But when she’s quoted in text, she looks like a complete idiot, because it becomes obvious that she isn’t using complete sentences. She isn’t even trying to use complete sentences in any way similar to print communication; she relies almost entirely on tone of voice and subtle gestures to punctuate and provide relational information about her word salad. This also makes her hard to refute, since it’s almost impossible to quote her accurately, especially when trying to reassemble her words into an argument or even a sentence. (I don’t recommend using this defensive tactic, though; mostly, you’ll look like an idiot, and that will backfire faster than you can say “polytheism.”)

I’m not saying that you have to sound like you’re reading from a perfectly-prepared script. Speaking is different from writing. But you should know, ahead of time, that you can speak clearly enough to be represented accurately in print and to make the kind of impression you want on audiences who encounter you first through the written word.

The ability to put together sentences on the fly, to remember where you are in your sentence (this sentence no verb!) even as you’re developing your argument, and most of all, the ability to end a thought and a sentence coherently and accurately are not easy abilities to master. If you develop some skill with them, though, that will put you head-and-shoulders above other amateurs and make a much more positive impression on your audience, both readers and viewers.

My iPad and my Paganism

I got an iPad 2 recently and I’ve been thrilled with a handful of apps on it that are very useful to me as a Pagan, so I thought I’d do a quick overview. I’m sorry, I’m not sophisticated enough to have detailed screenshots, and I haven’t tried every app out there, so I can’t say that these are definitely the best of their kind, but they’re relatively easy to find and some of them are tremendously useful, so here goes:

My absolute favorite is 3D Sun Moon HD. It’s on sale right now for $2.99, but in my opinion it would be well worth the usual full price of $4.99. It gives you a view of where the sun’s and moon’s courses across the sky will fall for the entire day. This doesn’t sound so cool until you see that it’s a 3D representation that changes depending on which direction you’re facing (or holding the iPad). It doesn’t just show you where things in the sky are right now, it shows where they were, and when, and when and where the sun and moon rise and set, all relative to your position.

It’s really a tremendous amount of information in an elegantly simple display, intuitively communicating things like day length, how the phase of the moon changes, and what the sky will look like when you go to do ritual later on today. Or tomorrow – one of my favorite accidental discoveries about this app is that if you scroll through the date, it animates the sun and moon movements through the next several days, weeks, or months of their progress across the sky. This has to be one of the best tools for helping me, especially as an urban Pagan, stay oriented to what’s going on in the sky.

Along those lines, I also love Sun Seeker Lite, which gives a flat compass-oriented view of the sun’s path across the sky. More importantly, it will take a Google Maps view of your current location and superimpose the directions, hour-by-hour, where the sun will be coming from and casting shadows to. I’m sorry, it’s hard to explain in words. But when you see it, it is an incredibly easy way to figure out what the lighting conditions will be like, so you can tell whether the person calling the West will be blinded if you do ritual at 5pm, or what time today you ought to go outside to see the sun just brushing the tops of your favorite tree.

Originally designed to help photographers set up ideal shots with light and shadow, the Lite version of this app is free, and is plenty for me. For $4.99 you can upgrade to the full version which does “augmented reality.” Point the iPad towards the part of the sky you’re interested in, and the screen will show you a live view through the camera with the sun’s path across the sky graphically superimposed.

Another type of augmented reality application is Star Walk, one of the most highly recommended apps for the iPad. Turn on Star Walk and it shows you a graphical representation of the stars, constellations, planets, satellites, and what-have-you that are (or could be) visible in the portion of the sky it’s currently pointing at. It’s like one of those star charts that you can print out to help you see constellations, except that this is constantly up-to-the-minute, precisely coordinated with your location and the exact direction you’re pointing. It makes $4.99 a cheap price to pay to finally be able to recognize constellations besides Orion.

While we’re still looking at the sky, I can also recommend Luan, an app available for just 99 cents, that shows the lunar calendar, either by itself, or coordinated with the solar calendar. Gorgeous detailed images of the moon show what it will look like, with discreet indicators around the edge indicating when sunrise, sunset, moon rise, and moon set will take place. I tried a ton of different lunar calendar apps and finally settled on this one as the most convenient way to get exactly the information I wanted.

Finally, a little closer to home, Leafsnap is a nifty app that’s helping me improve my botanical knowledge. Take a photo of a leaf against a white background and Leafsnap queries a database to find the best matches for the plant it came from. It’s not perfect, by a long shot, since it’s a little finicky and has a somewhat limited database, but it’s a handy tool, so it’s worth a try, especially because it’s free.

Just a few more apps are worth a mention: GoodGuide can help you evaluate the relative environmental, social, and health impact of products you buy, and there are lots of cool meditation and yoga apps. I’m still trying Equanimity, the i-Qi timer, and the Insight Timer for meditation, along with Capital Yoga and Yoga Free. Using the iPad to have your own rock garden (iZenLite) or calming pond (Pocket Pond) can be pretty fun, too, and Naturespace has some nice audio clips of natural settings.

If you have favorite apps, what are they? Why do you like them?

Meditation Moment: Bringing the Outdoors In

Last month I wrote about how being deeply present in a single moment helps us relate to all moments; this month, I want to extend that approach to thinking about space as well as time. As Pagans, we tend to cultivate our connections to the world around us, especially the natural world. Meditation can help us deepen that connection.

Many of us practice in urban areas, but still want to connect to the rhythm of the seasons and natural cycles. It can be ideal to find a location outdoors in which to meditate, but few of us have the luxury of doing that every day. So we need to find ways of bringing the outdoors in for us to connect with during meditation.

The goal here is to be present in a particular place, just as last month we talked about being present in the particular moment. We want to be present with this individual stone, or shell, or flower, or twig; not with all stones, or all flowers, but this one, in particular, in all of its uniqueness. It is an example of the place it came from, a connection to that one spot. But just as being present in each unique moment helps us connect to all moments, narrowing our focus to a deeper contemplation of this one location can paradoxically help us appreciate the totality of the world we live in.

Meditation’s connection between the minuscule and the majestic – now and all time, here and everywhere, myself and all living things – makes this contemplation of nature much more than a decoration, more than a superficial acknowledgement, and into a deep act of awareness. When we want to have a more meaningful relationship with the web of life and the natural cycles that support it, we can start small. Recognizing the uniqueness of one thing and the richness in one small corner of reality helps us appreciate that each corner is similarly rich and full.

If you can make meditating outdoors in a particular spot an occasional addition to your regular practice, that can help you establish a relationship with a specific place. Then taking a small reminder – a stone, a leaf – back to your usual meditation space is part of an ongoing process of connection anchored in that location, not just a scattershot series of one-off connections with a multitude of places. Even if there’s no special place where you can go and meditate, maintaining a connection with a particular spot is a better way to anchor yourself in the rhythms of nature; connect to one tree or one group of living things in your area, and use reminders of them as your focus for meditation.

If you really want to connect to the seasons in that place, make sure to change your focus on a regular basis. Take your reminder back to the place you got it, and return it to nature with your thanks, then find something else, something new, to focus on, to help you experience the constant change and wonderful variety found in your particular location. Especially at this time of year, when flowers are blooming and trees are unfurling their leaves as fast as possible, don’t let your focus get fixed on a single object to the extent that you ignore the changes taking place in your little corner of the world.

Get physical about your experience of place, too! The physical world engages our senses in ways that an abstraction like time can’t. Feel the texture of trees’ bark with your fingers, taste the tart sweetness of blackberries later on, listen to the birds and the wind in the leaves and the patter of the rain. And yes, stop and smell the roses – and the honeysuckle and lilacs and everything else, too.

I mentioned that a connection to place can serve as a kind of anchor. Just as the ability to draw one’s attention to the present moment can be a part of grounding and centering, the deep awareness of a particular place can also be a form of grounding – the literal meaning behind the metaphor. That familiarity with a location can be a touchstone, a reminder of the relationship that we hearken back to every time we pause over a meal or give thanks for coming home safely after a trip.

And since you know that by connecting to your one place, you are also connecting to all places, even when you are in unfamiliar surroundings you know you have the ability to ground yourself there as well, to tap into the connection to the same deeper reality, and if you need to, to become familiar with this new place as well.

The beginning of this month is the celebration of Beltane; it’s time to fall in love again. One of love’s amazing qualities is that it takes us outside of ourselves. By engaging with someone else, we gain a whole new perspective on the world, and on ourselves, and we gain the opportunity to change and grow in ways we could hardly have imagined alone. This Beltane, consider falling in love with the land. When we do, when we bring the outdoors in, if we fully engage with it and start to develop a relationship, it too, like all good loves, will take us outside of ourselves.

Imagine this: OPF

Imagine the uproar that would happen if a conservative Christian picked up a brochure in the Chaplain’s office that read:

Officers’ Pagan Fellowship (OPF) of the U.S.A. was formed in 2011, in the midst of the longest-running wars in US history. The gods have used OPF powerfully for their purposes ever since, in peace and war. Today, we are Pagans in all branches of the US Armed Forces who are united by our reverence for nature and the immanent holiness of all people and places. We are committed to living out our practices in the military society.

Our Purpose and Vision statements are:

Purpose: To honor nature by uniting Pagan officers for environmental awareness and respect, equipping them to minister effectively in the military society.

Vision: A spiritually transformed military, with ambassadors for all gods in uniform, empowered by the spirits of people and places, living with a passion for nature and compassion for all people, military and civilian.

Those statements have been combined into our Mission Statement which says, simply, that we are: Pagan officers exercising natural leadership to raise up a military practicing myriad traditions.

That’s not real, of course. There is no Officers’ Pagan Fellowship. But the above is based on the text of the standard Officers’ Christian Fellowship brochure found in just about every Chaplain’s office everywhere. Imagine how frightening conservative Christians would find a similar brochure for Muslim officers – suppose they were intending “to raise up a military submitted to Allah” or a military following the law of Allah? They would even find a similar statement from Jewish officers a little unsettling, I imagine. At the same time, the OCF and similar groups expect non-Christians to find them benign and well-meaning? Their own hypocrisy betrays their duplicity.

Tolerance, pluralism, and safe space

There’s been some major upheaval on another blog I read frequently: the blogger has moved to the Patheos portal, and a lot of his very active and tightly-knit community of commenters are seriously upset about this, because Patheos does not meet the standards that community had established for inclusiveness. Since I’ve also recently read Gus diZerega’s post calling for religious pluralism rather than religious tolerance, and Jonathan Kirsch’s God Against the Gods, about the conflicts between polytheism and monotheism, and Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One, about the differences between major world religions, the subjects of tolerance, pluralism, and safe space have been on my mind a lot lately. A lot of people don’t understand the difference between tolerance and pluralism, and even more people don’t understand that there is a third option: safe space. A lot of people want to work towards safe space, but because they miscall it tolerance, their very language undermines them and can be used against them by the kind of bigots they are trying to work away from.

Tolerance is an appropriate description of the attitude taken by the majority or the powerful when they decide to accept some things about the minority or those without power. Parents tolerate their two-year-old’s tantrums; countries with state religions may tolerate those who believe otherwise. Not every use of the word implies such a huge power disparity, of course: Roman Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians started learning to tolerate the differences among them after the Thirty Years War, both in areas that were Protestant-controlled and those Catholic-controlled. But it does imply a power inequality and that differences existence on sufferance, not because of approval or agreement to disagree.

Pluralism implies that there is more than one way to do or to be, and that more than one of those ways is protected. The US Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech is an effort to enshrine pluralism in the country’s laws. The government has, in effect, an agreement to disagree with others: the government’s power must be used to support the ability of others to disagree with it or criticize it. When certain kinds of speech are restricted, we slip back to tolerance, and the government deciding what is to be tolerated. Sometimes that’s necessary, but the principle in the Constitution is usually interpreted by courts as an instruction to be as close as possible to pluralism. The decisions by courts that some things, like “fighting words,” or incitement to violence, are intolerable is a point we’ll return to later. Pluralism, by its very nature, is inherently in a state of turmoil: people are allowed to say things like “You’re stupid,” and “You shouldn’t listen to him,” and even “He shouldn’t be allowed to say that,” or, in other words, “I’m using my position under pluralism to criticize pluralism!”

Safe space is where intolerance is not tolerated. Safe space is the idea of tolerance taken through pluralism and out the other side, to where tolerance becomes not just the powerful’s promise not to hurt those who disagree with them, but a reclaiming of that power by the previously powerless, to be used in their defense. It is inherently more regulated than pluralism – pluralism is the laissez-faire form of conversation, if you will. Safe space, like an effort to rectify economic inequalities, attempts to rectify power inequalities in conversation. That requires using power, and in particular, using it against the people who usually have more power.

Safe spaces exist because pluralism isn’t inherently safe. Pluralism is dangerous: people get to say things like, “I know better than you do what you should do with your body,” or “You’re not really a human being,” or “I don’t think you should exist.” I like a lot of things about pluralism, and I would never, ever try to enshrine the ideas of a safe space in law, for example, but pluralism is hard, and sometimes we need places that allow us to retreat from that. It hurts to be worn down every day. Even when each individual insult is light as a feather, at the end of the day you can barely stand up because of the fifteen featherbeds’ worth of insults that have landed on you, even carelessly, even accidentally.

Yes, safe spaces create the danger of an echo chamber, where we only listen to people who already agree with us. But for people who are routinely hurt by everyday life, there’s little danger of that becoming an issue right now. All I have to do is walk out the door to see people who disagree with me, some who show it quite regularly. Yes, safe spaces use power, and no, that use of power isn’t always “fair” by everyone’s definition of fair. But it’s something that I believe needs to be done, and especially when that use of power happens only to those who have given consent by entering the safe space to begin with, it’s a lot better than what happens on the outside. It’s not reverse repression: it’s an attempt to dream, and maybe even to create small pieces of shared dreams, of what a lack of repression would look like.

And yes, safe spaces do exclude those unable or unwilling to cooperate. That’s one good reason that most places aren’t safe spaces, actually. And it’s why creating safe spaces requires a major commitment from those enforcing them to be willing to reexamine their own motives, to make sure they aren’t letting their desire for safety become a cover for their own prejudice, and so that they are using that power in as minimal a way possible.

A claim that pluralism solves all ills is willful blindness. Prothero is right about this: many major religions have fundamental, irreconcilable differences about the world and the metaphysical. For religions and religious interpretations that make exclusive truth claims, existing in a pluralistic space can be hard, and if they create pluralism in areas where they have power, it is a remarkable exercise in tolerance. And they will reveal this by having limits on what they tolerate, just as the government has limits on some kinds of speech, even while holding itself to its promise of pluralism as much as possible. Kirsch is right that monotheism fosters exclusive truth claims and gives a stunning account of how hegemonic power and exclusive truth claims have been used to reinforce each other. I’ve met many monotheists who don’t make exclusive truth claims; perhaps they can move the center of gravity in their religions closer to a point where more mutual respect is possible. But I don’t know, and it’s certainly not the case right now.

Right now, plenty of bigots are still pretending that their religious (or other) bigotry is “fact,” rather than just asserting their right to speak (or act) as bigots. And that means that safe spaces are still needed. It doesn’t mean that everywhere should be a safe space: I disagree with diZerega’s conclusion that a commitment to pluralism should be required of all “true spirituality,” because what he means isn’t just pluralism in terms of speech, but a kind of mutual respect between religions that is not possible for religions with exclusive truth claims. I don’t want to say that those aren’t “true spirituality.” DiZerega wants a kind of safe space in the entire sphere of religion; he thinks religions should not tolerate intolerance. I think it would be wrong for me to dictate to those religions in their own space, and, frankly, I am committed to pluralism, which means that in areas that neither one of us controls, or where we agree not to exercise certain powers – like the public sphere – I have to “tolerate” their intolerance. And I do. But not in all spaces.

In this space, I commit to using my power to try to create a safe space. I haven’t made a comment policy yet, and this theoretical discussion isn’t very clear as one, but I’ll work on refining it. For now, let me say that I want to make this space safe for people of color, for women, for people who are QUILTBAG (Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Transsexual or Transgender, Asexual, or Gay), for people with disabilities, for people of any religion who do not make exclusive truth claims or disparage my religion, and more. Because hurtful speech does harm, and allowing that speech is consenting or contributing to that harm. I will warn you, and then I will ban you. And if you think I’m making this space less safe for you in some way, please, let me know about it, and I will listen. Help me make this safe space.