After “The Call of Cthulhu,” possibly Lovecraft’s most famous short story. Just don’t ask me what he calls the cat in the original story. Oh, Howard.
Deciding upon Heathenry is decidedly anticlimactic. You don’t get an invite dropped off by a couple of shady-looking ravens, nor does a thunderclap bellow into the night. In fact, nothing happens at all. I always think of the character of Michael Scott from The Office shouting, “I declare…BANKRUPTCY!” as the most delightful way of declaring anything.
Well, almost nothing happens. Funny thing, that. I remember when I made the concrete decision to become a Heathen, I was sitting on a park bench on the Hamilton escarpment, and I said under my breath, “Alright, Odin. Let’s give this a try.” And I looked up, and just at that moment a raven flew overhead. I felt a lightness in my heart, and I laughed.
Make of that what you will. Being who I am, I later looked up local birds on the escarpment to see if there were in fact local ravens, and found out that there were. I later learned that in terms of religious experiences, I had experienced an Unverified Personal Gnosis, or UPG for short. Good gracious, but terminology can take the mystique out of anything.
So, my Unverified Personal Gnosis notwithstanding, it was up to me to figure out what to do next. I had done lots of research up to this point, but now was the time to start looking for direction. Time to do some rummaging around books and the Internet, I thought.
Forgive me, o blogosphere, for not continuing on this explanation of my path to heathenism. I have been interrupted for the most delightful of reasons – the launch of my podcast! It can be found on iTunes and Google Play, and hopefully soon on Spotify. This creative endeavour has occupied a great deal of my time and energy, but has also been a source of real pleasure. I look forward to where it takes me.
But that is another story. This one is about where I stand and do my best to make my peace with the universe. From Catholicism, to doubt, to atheism, to agnosticism, to pantheism, to Heathenry.
So what does being a Heathen mean to me?
Well, that’s the tricky bit that I’m trying to figure out, step by step.
If this is how I’m going to relate to the universe, what form does it take?
For whatever reason, I find it easier to work through elimination than affirmation.
Do I think that Odin, Thor, and all the rest have some form of corporeal existence, watching us from some other plane?
Nah. Gods aren’t that simple, in my opinion. They are a mystery, and my instincts point me inwards, through my dreams, through my unconscious, into the collective unconscious, into whatever oft-ignored realm exists of the collective experience of humanity and its relationship to all life, all existence, to the parts of us that came from the stars and can be deeply moved in ways we don’t fully understand by art, by music, by nature.
If the Gods live anywhere, they live there. That’s where I’m searching.
Ah, Lovecraft…what an odd, haunted, race-obsessed fellow he was. And yet he continues to fascinate readers. This story features the debut of Cthulhu, in all his tentacled glory. Enjoy!
Bear with me, dear listeners, as I work to use Blubrry hosting services for my free podcast. I have chosen one of my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” May we always remember Irene Adler!
“Called or not called, the god will be there.” So Carl Jung observed, and indeed had carved above the entrance to his house, although of course he did it in Latin where it looks and sounds even cooler. I don’t claim to be an expert in matters Jungian, so the best I can do is to explain what I have taken away from his writings, and how I have applied them to my spiritual life.
Carl Jung believed that the gods – these archetypal figures – lie within the human unconscious, perhaps rising up from the even deeper waters of the collective unconscious, a kind of deep group mind, even group experience and history, that humans share. For myself, I know that the figures of these archetypal gods do exist in my subconscious, and I suspect the existence of the collective unconscious, based on no more than my instincts and my (admittedly biased) experience.
What can I tell you? This view is not for everyone, but that’s fine. An old therapist used to joke that I was “a poster boy for Jungian dream interpretation,” and my goodness, is it true. My dreaming life proceeds along the geography of a thoroughly, vividly Jungian landscape. Even as I proceeded to think along these lines, I knew – intuitively, in that way that does not demand evidence – that the path of my journey of faith went inside my own head, and hopefully into those deeper, divine waters, the place where pantheism and the collective unconscious met.
I closed my eyes, and Odin was there. Called or not.
Well, there was no way I was going to be content with spiritual but not religious. I had been silently judging those people for years! Too vague, too soft, too lazy. There was no way I was going to allow things to stay in such a state. Time to step up my game, and move from theory to practice.
I knew that what I believed was very close to Hegelian pantheism, but I needed something beyond a theoretical structure. There was so much about First Nations spirituality that I found incredibly attractive, but it wasn’t my tradition and I didn’t want to be the guy who was one turquoise bolo tie from being a white New Mexican commune dweller.
So: pantheist, indigenous tradition appropriate for a white guy of European descent…fair enough. That left with me a couple of choices: pagan or heathen. If you don’t know the difference between the two, it means you’re cooler than me. Sigh. Or, I could put it like this: what paganism and heathenism share is that they are both “reconstructed” religions. They existed prior to the introduction of Christianity, which effectively wiped them out. The rise of Romanticism in the 19th century, with its emphasis on resurgent nationalism, saw the beginning of a renewed interest in traditional European, pre-Christian religions. These movements were given a huge infusion of energy with the rise of the counterculture and new age movements of the 1960s and 70s.
Paganism was largely a creation of British environmentalists and Celtic revivalists. Heathenism was an artifact of German and Scandinavian nationalism, which crashed messily into the Nazi movement before starting to untangle itself.
It’s heathenism that spoke to me. Bear with me, I promise I’m not a Nazi.
This is probably a good point for me to acknowledge the huge role that the fiction of Terry Pratchett has played in shaping my views about the world. For those who aren’t familiar, most of Pratchett’s novels center around his fantasy setting of the Discworld – a magical, late medieval/early renaissance setting in which the fantastic is everyday yet the characters are remarkably similar to us. I followed his works from the beginning, and watched them develop from a sort of fantasy parody to books that were penetrating skewers of human nature that were humanized by their warmth and sympathy. I know a lot of people who don’t like them, and still more who have never read them, but for me, they occupy a place at the center of both my morality and my world view.
In Pratchett’s universe, the gods exist, but they are jealous and petty and rather given to sending short, sharp, and quite electric messages to people who question their existence. They are to be acknowledged – if you don’t want to end up as a pair of smoking boots – but they are certainly nothing to be revered. They may operate on a higher scale of power, and possibly even knowledge, but in terms of their psychological makeup they are rather disappointingly just like us.
However, that’s not all there is. What matters far more than the gods is…well…everything. which is not the same thing as putting your faith in humanity. Ha! Pratchett would be the first to tell you that you’ll get your wallet nicked before you can even finish the sentence. But, nevertheless, that it is possible to live your life as if everything is a miracle. That putting your faith in anything might be sort of a fool’s errand, but that paradoxically enough it is still possible to live faithfully.
And so it was that the works of someone widely considered to be an atheist brought me out of atheism. It simply wasn’t good enough. There is something divine, something miraculous, about the world, about the universe, and there must be a way of living that could bring me closer in harmony with this.
Oh, NO! Was I spiritual but not religious?!?
And so began a long, long flirtation with atheism. Faith is a fragile thing at the best of times, even when supported by culture, habit, community; when you step outside of these things, you’re not left with much. Years ago, I saw a painting by the Canadian artist William Kurelek called “The Atheist,” which feature a man perched on the limb of a tree, industriously sawing away at the very branch that was supporting him. Dead branches littering the ground gave mute testimony to his determined bloody-mindedness. I don’t know if Kurelek was right about the human relationship with God, but I do know that when you leave a religion, you cut yourself off from a lot of supports.
But it was too late! Catholicism, the religion that had been chosen for me, was teaching things that I simply did not believe. I did not see (any still don’t) any good reason why women could not be ordained as priests and bishops. I did not see (and still don’t) any good reason why the Church should reject homosexuality. The pedants will tell you that the Church doesn’t reject homosexuals, just homosexual behaviour, but c’mon – that’s hair-splitting of a level that only a medieval-minded scholastic could find relevant. I could at least understand, at an abstract level, the ideological consistency of condemning both contraception and abortion, but the practical effects of this were callous, horrific, and cruel.
But…atheism. It just seemed so stark. Nothing out there? I mean, I could at least follow the philosophical consistency of the argument. And existentialism seemed to offer the opportunity to create whatever meaning you wanted to assert for your own life. That was appealing. Sartre’s in-your-face rebelliousness appealed to my anarchist side.
I just couldn’t quite do it. I didn’t want to label myself an agnostic, because it just seemed to me that people used that as an excuse not to really wrestle with the issues – the old “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” – but at the same time, to say that there was nothing out there? That seemed like a kind of willful blindness disturbingly similar to what I had just left behind.
Did I hear the ghost of William Kurelek laughing at me?
Having smart people around you who don’t share your assumptions is awesome for personal growth, but terrible for a sense of certainty. In conversation after conversation, beliefs that I thought were bedrock were eroded away. It was a very gradual process, almost like the reverse of stalagmites in a cave; with every drop, a small bit of certainty melted.
The ordinary Catholic defense – “these poor unbelievers will go to Hell” – just wasn’t cutting it. I liked these people, and even more than that, I respected them. Some of them operated with a hell of lot more moral consistency than certain Catholics I knew. Why should they be out of the salvation club if they were good people, just not Catholic? The notion offended my sense of what was right.
It didn’t help that I was starting to really focus on studying medieval history. The Middle Ages was the last period of complete Catholic supremacy in the West, and…wow. Those were not the people you wanted running the show. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Catholic Church governed any worse than anyone else, but they sure as hell didn’t run things any better. For me, that was really the end. These people weren’t any better than anyone else. So why should I listen to them when they said they were?
Well, my parents might have told me (had I asked them) that I should be listening to God; that it wasn’t about His flawed instruments (i.e. people), it was about God’s will.
Have you ever heard God?
Like, for real.
Not “I wonder if that idea that flashed into my head came from God” or “I think that dream was a message from Our Lord” or “I just felt peace and the presence of something holy” or anything like that. No, I’m talking Gideon putting wool fleece on the threshing floor, TWICE, and saying, “Ball’s in your court, God, time to prove this is real.” According to the Old Testament, God did what Gideon asked – first time, the fleece was wet with dew and the ground was dry; second time, the fleece was dry and the ground was wet with dew.
Don’t try this yourself, if you want to stay a happy Catholic.
I was no longer a happy Catholic.