Pagan Values? About what are we talking exactly?

Last June was another ‘Pagan Values Month,’ and I was impressed by the number of participants offering such a wide range of ideas. Most of the discussions that I saw cenred around establishing a common code of ethics or approach to morality with which all pagans might agree — well, not all pagans. As I understand it, the institution of the month was particularly informed by several incidences (see below for some links on these) in various places of sexual predators abusing their position and faith by using them as a means of imposing sex on either minors or non-consenting individuals. The inherent and central exclusivity of such an undertaking has naturally and (in my view) rightly excited some critics of formulating a common code of values and ethics.

Defining a core set of pagan values establishes a(n ostensible) majority who can decry the behaviour of those who do not profess such values. It is an undertaking of codification and normalisation in the sense that establishing a set of core, essential and authenticating values formulates a norm out of which the non-conformers are subsequently cast. Thus its staunchest critics claim that establishing a set of pagan values is thereby establishing a pagan orthodoxy. Its opposing viewpoint in support of a pan-pagan value system claims that certain behaviours are easily classed as lying outwith the pale of ‘real’ paganism; rape, murder, theft, and even smaller crimes like racism, bigotry and other forms of intolerance are simply not pagan.

Well, sorry guys. They are.

Yes, it is true that in the modern form of paganism, what the editors of the journal Pomegranate would have us call ‘contemporary paganism,’ such behaviour flies in the face of wisdom and true divinity. As conceived by its various adherents whether they  pray to Odinn, the Goddess as maiden, mother and crone, or simply cultivate a nature-centred spirituality, behaviour that is openly hateful, violent or dehumanizing is to be avoided at all cost — and fair enough! I agree! I would do everything in my power to prevent such actions, as would any man who was worthy of the label. In my view, and (I should add) that of most forms of traditional paganism like Shinto, Native American spirituality and Vedic religion, honour, truth and benevolence are goods in and of themselves and central to a life lived properly (whether or not it is led outside of Judeo-Christian religious structures).

This was as true when Christianity was spreading as it is now, and I would argue that it was this core commonality between the Christian and pagan viewpoints that allowed for such a relatively easy process of conversion in Europe (I mean as far as the Middle Ages go: only Charlemagne and a handful of Viking converts spread Christianity by the sword in Europe. The period of colonisation and witch-hunting during the early modern period is another matter entirely.) Let us be clear and deliberate about our use of the term ‘pagan’ and what it means historically.

The atrocities of pagans may have been exaggerated by Christian polemic, but there was at least some fact rooted in the miasma of condemnation. The Vikings’ depredations were depicted as horrific because the raiders disregarded the sanctity of the Christian church, but they still dismembered Blathmac, abbot of Iona, around 825 CE as he tried to protect its relics. The Ostrogoths may not have completely destroyed Rome when they sacked it in 410 CE, but Augustine of Hippo still had to address whether rape was sinful for the woman (or man) on whom it was imposed. The Vandals may not have been as destructive as their name now suggests, but they still had no qualms about slaughtering the troops and orthodox Christians who opposed them as they set up their North African Kingdom. (Many of the Vandals were actually heterodox Christians anyway, but who’s counting?) If these are all Germanic, then we could look at human sacrifice as practiced among the Celts, South American tribes, and even Sparta (killing babies by exposure for the good of the state).

All of this violence was not an aberration of proper pagan conduct but rather sanctioned by their adherents’ understanding of how humans interacted with the divine. Now, certainly the motives of many may not have been religiously inspired, but their code of conduct would certainly have been established by their religion in the same way that crusaders justified their self-aggrandizing atrocities with Christian rhetoric. The most extreme documented example was the Viking Blood Eagle, a kind of sacrifice wherein one hacked through the back of an opponent’s rib-cage in order to pull his lungs out in imitation of wings. So far as we can tell, this practice was sacred to Odin. The reality is that whether or not they killed humans, every form of paganism until the modern period practiced a form of ritual slaughter. The gods of Greece were literally sickened if human meat was prepared for them, but this did not prevent the widespread slaughter of animals in order to win their favour.

In fact, the great watershed between Christian and pagan was precisely over the issue of sacrifice. On the one hand there was the issue of the sacrifice’s object: Christians would not sacrifice to the emperor. On the other hand, newly forming Christian doctrine during Paul’s mission replaced burnt offerings with offerings of praise and song. After two thousand years, the idea has become almost a presumption, but in the first four centuries of the Common Era it was a fairly new idea for the West (although it does appear in the Rig Veda), and one that was not picked up readily by many pagan communities.

If we persist in viewing all violence as an aberration and evil, then we need to acknowledge the debt owed to Christianity in making this presumption widespread.

There are, however, a number of problems with the Christian insistence on non-violence as an ideal. The greatest of these is the difficulty in actually adhering to it. Jainism and other such extremely pacifistic religions are the only ones that seem capable of approaching this ideal. Christianity is so far removed from it as to be laughable. No Christian that I know balks at killing mosquitoes, clearing forests for building, or eating at MacDonald’s chain of restaurants, one of the most violent businesses in my opinion due to its support of the modern industrio-agricultural complex. The raising of cattle and chickens for slaughter in the first-world is abusive and nightmarish to say nothing of its effect on the environment. (Watch Food Inc. or read The Omnivore’s Dilemma for examples.)

I don’t even need to mention the emotional violence done to children who are taught the guilt of sin and the threat of Christian damnation in order to show that violence shows up in the most frightening of places. In fact, I would argue that most modern societies professing Christianity as their dominant religion are actually pursuing distinctively un-Christian policies in every facet of society. Recent attacks against pagan communities show this in the starkest of terms.

The other option is that we could, as pagans, define what kinds of violence are permissible and which are not. It’s not like pagans have avoided this issue before. Aristotle, Plato, in fact all of the thinkers that established philosophy as a discipline were in fact pagan, and I would wager that a good argument could be made that most modern philosophers dealing with ethics were not really Christian. In fact, Christian philosophy was only distinguished from theology in the 1920s when Étienne Gilson argued that medieval Christian thinkers were actually engaging in philosophical thought when they wrote about theology, ethics and other similar subjects (like Astrology and secular authority). Modern pagans have been talking about this  as well since the sixties, and there are some very notable thinkers, like Brendan Meyers and Michael York, who are deliberately cultivating a contemporary pagan philosophy of ethics.

The strength of paganism from a philosophical perspective is that it can be large enough to embrace a myriad of ethical systems and understandings. As an inherently localizing and thus pluralistic approach to spirituality, paganism cannot by nature possess an orthodoxy of ethics, but it can have a universally held method for talking about how any given community will respond to situations like theft, rape and murder. Not to get ahead of myself or engage in fantastic speculation, but this could become known as a distinctively pagan discourse. In many ways, I see it developing already.

Let’s say a group of pagans in the armed forces wanted to reinstitute the custom of the Blood Eagle. This would not only be grossly illegal and against every convention of modern warfare, but it would also be condemned by almost every other contemporary pagan group in the world. Nevertheless, such a group is just as pagan as those condemning the practice, but other religions could expect the condemnation of other pagan communities to be voiced in the accepted pagan discourse. Actual steps to prevent the Blood Eagle or to punish those who attempted it would fall to the government in whose jurisdiction the crime occurred.

At the end of the day, attempting to formalize a commonly held morality can only weaken the place of paganism in the contemporary world. Honestly and openly presenting our decentralized and autonomous systems of ethics to the world is the only way that we can maintain our name as pagans and thereby earn our due respect as the pages of history slowly turn.

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