Summer Solstice & Neo-Pagan “Religion”: An Infernal Reading

But I arose and sought for the mill, & there I found my Angel, who surprised, asked me how I escaped [“the infinite Abyss”]? I answer’d: “All that we saw was owing to your metaphysics; for when you went away, I found myself  on a bank by moonlight hearing a harper But now that we have seen my eternal lot, shall I shew you yours? …”

Note: This Angel, who is now A Devil, is my particular friend; we often rad the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense, which the world shall have if they behave well.

–William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

These are my reflections on the news story out of Great Britain about the Druids at Stonehenge (6/21) getting legal status for a bona fide “mainstream faith” (which I read on the air on 6/20 in the middle of my “Summer Solstice 2011” musical essay).

{“Rant Alert”}

As a student of religion & philosophy in college, I was taught an evolutionary hierarchical model of the history of religion that put “primitive religions” at the bottom and the axial-age religions (we know today) at the top. According to this model, the early tribal religions and the ancient polytheistic religions were all moving towards monotheism–the pinnacle of sophisticated religious systems.

Of course, what I wasn’t told was that this academic model remained beholden to the built-in bias of Christian theology (the original structure for the teaching of the history of religion in the early universities and not just the seminaries), since the early church fathers had to deal with the embarrassing parallels of the Hellenistic (Greco-Roman) pagan “mystery religions,” with their dying-and-reborn gods. Thus, these were seen as either mockeries of the One True Religion put there by the Devi or, at best, “mythologies” that were nice tries until Christianity finally got it right; until the real, “historical” savior appeared. This was religion at it’s best. This was the theological legacy in the secular establishment. However, by the time I graduated, this pre-1960’s model had been seriously challenged (by scholars like Mircea Eliade, with his work on archaic religions like shamanism).

As I have continued my interest in the phenomenon of “religion,” I have come to the view that the old model got it ass-backwards. Again, religions with many gods (polytheism) were seen as inferior to the religions of one God (monotheism). (I’m simplifying a bit, since there are different distinctions/kinds of polytheism and monotheism.) For instance, polytheistic religions systems have a richer and deeper psychological reflection in the human soul, and speak to the psyche in archetypal images and stories. Plus, polytheistic systems tend to make of a more pluralistic world view, whereas the monotheistic systems tend to demand one truth, one point of view, which stifles diversity. As an early pioneer in the history of religions, James Henry Breasted, put it: “Monotheism is imperialism in religion.” (This also has social implications for tolerance in what William James called a “Pluralistic Universe.”)

I now see that all nature-based religions (like the Celtic ones of Europe and like the ones which originated on this continent with Native Americans), are so much more spiritually complex and sophisticated that they almost seem to make the monotheistic big three, especially Christianity, look like religion for spiritual adolescents. Not only that, but they have the added advantage of being able to underpin with deep spirituality the kind of world-view that will foster and give spiritual meaning to the environmental movement. In this country, the neo-pagan religion of Wicca shows promise in this direction.

[I’m obliged here, in the interest of full disclosure, to point out that I say these things not as any kind of “believer.” I say them as a philosophical non-theist gnostic-agnostic and a “political” atheist. (I will the glad to explain myself here upon request.) This means, also, that the image tagged on to this post is not representative of my “religion”–ah, now that’s a term, depending on how you define it (based upon your model of it), which seems to be behind the whole crux/cross of the controversy in England (and America). In other words, I’ve never made a home altar and placed this image on it, nor have I ever hung one in my front window. (Though, admittedly, I might entertain the idea of one in, say, stained glass to bring out its pleasing aesthetic quality, to hang on my porch just to alarm the neighbors and passersby on Summer Solstice 🙂 I only attach it here to go with the news story. (And because I used it as one image among many for my radio program musical essay for the Summer Solstice. See entry below.) So I hope that what I have said about “religion” isn’t interpreted to be summed up in the this image (as provocative as it may be) and certain people get all, you know . . . cross with me and ride my ass about Christianity.]

It’s not my intention here to argue about whether or not the neo-Druids, or any other neo-pagan group in England, are in fact “serious” alternative religion (or “cult” as some would prefer to call them in depreciation; but let us remember that an organized world-religion, like Christianism, is just a “cult” (one among many in the Roman culturally pluralistic world) that made it big when its political fortunes turned with Emperor Constantine, who made this “Jesus cult” the state religion). But I can say that I believe that one thing this new legal ruling in favor of neo-Druidism in England means is that the corner has been turned on the cultural hegemony of having the market cornered; the old crypto-christian prejudice of “we have religion and you don’t”–and, “once more, we’re tax exempt.”

And it will remain to be seen if the neo-Druid “church” will abuse this government exemption as much as the Christian ones have–you know, the ones that cop to one of the main lessons of their founder. How does that go again? Something about “woe to you hypocrites” who would “cast the first stone,” right?) [Jesus Christ! Now I’m forced to slightly amend my disclosure above about not being a “believer.” Because, when I think of how this upstart Nazarene prophet’s special dislike for religious hypocrites matches my own, I wonder if that alone makes me a follower …]

But, then again, didn’t one of my favorite English poets (who I also studied as a Lit. major along with my Religious Studies) answer this question when this upstart poetic “Christian” (as he called himself–other “Christians,” as he noted, just called him “madman”–) complicated the entire issue? (1) A famous Poem-Argument relates to his readers what happened when an angel was sent down to show him his eternal punishment for his blasphemies (e.g., “Jesus died as an Unbeliever”. “I tell you no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments …. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”)–his “eternal lot”–and his trials and tribulations along the way. (2) At the very opening of “The Everlasting Gospel” he had to disclose his antinomian “religious” position. “Hear the voice of the Bard!”:

“The Vision of Christ that thou dost see / Is my Vision’s Greatest Enemy . . . Both read the Bible day and night, / But thou read’st black where I read white.”

As is my style, I digress. My point here? In other words, when the GS dares to assert that the dominant model of “religion” has got its priorities “ass-backward,” this is what I mean. Now, keeping with William Blake’s critical model of “religion” (“Aged Ignorance / Does thy God O Priest take such vengeance as this?” i.e., not Witchcraft, as charged in the article, but “Priestcraft”), the big difference in the both the orthodox and fundamentalist readings of the Bible (which biblical interpretation of post-18th-century hermeneutics heavily borrowed from the principles and methods of “literary criticism”–thus the whole issue of “literal” vs. “metaphorical” interpretation and “one” interpretation or “many” interpretations of the Book–mono-theistic or poly-theistic styles of interpretation?) is that they have, metaphorically speaking, got the story of the new messiah-to-be come riding processionally into Rome on a donkey all wrong–they got him riding backwards! And, consequently, ever since we’ve been riding backwards along the historical road of civilization; a backwards attitude to our relationship to the world and its environment–as any true tree-hugging/worshipping Druid-bard/shaman or Native American shaman will be the first to tell you.

So, to be utterly optimistic, maybe at Summer Solstice, we’re all at heart neo-pagans for one day. So on this Summer Solstice 2011, who’s with me in giving a thumbs up and an encouraging shout-out to those neo-Druids at Stonehenge?

Excuse the GS, for he is going to find some pleasant green bank of a river to sit by and listen to music on this Summer Solstice day.


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