Wednesday, April 23, 2008

From a Heathen World to a Christian World: Can Universal Morality Work?

Hail the Sig-Father here, at summer's beginning! I am happy to be back, writing at Cauldron Born, after my long hiatus. And for my return, I have a topic that I've spent a lot of time researching, and which I'm sure interests most of my readers- the realities behind the shift from a Pagan, clan-centric and locally-focused world towards a Christian world with large concentrations of political power and a focus on "nation".

How did this occur? Why did it occur? There have been many reasons given for the "triumph" of Christianity over native faiths. Christians tend to use the fact of their religion's "victory" over native religions as a sign of the rightness of their cause- but beyond questionable metaphysics, I think most people have realized that other social realities stacked up to give Christianity the power to succeed as well as it did. I've done a bit of reading on the subject, and I am preparing to show my findings and discuss them.

But before I can do that, let me assure you that I will not take the tired, boring route that most modern Pagans take- such as "the evil kings converted, and forced their people to convert" and the like. While the conversion of kings DID have a lot to do with it, there were deeper things occuring in society that aided the process of conversion. So, you can expect a more thoughtful analysis from me, in the next few days here.

Before I get to that, I'm going to do something strange- I'm going to start talking from the end, not the beginning. I'm going to take a few minutes here today to look at the "end process" of Christianization and ask a few salient questions.

To state it simply, long ago, the world was changing. One of the things that I discovered (and will report later) is that Pagan religious beliefs thrived in an environment that was socially and politically more decentralized- in the time before "kings" that took control of entire national regions (like the Kings of Norway) there were countless small local kings, and the people under those kings kept their own concentrations of culture, folk-society, and local customs alive in a single local area- a collection of farms, usually, or a small communal center. This is the place where Pagan religion thrived, among a small group of related families, who worked and lived alongside one another.

When "National Kings", aided by the new Christian religion, began to take power, they concentrated their power on courts that were in one place in their lands, and all of their new subjects no longer looked to their local regions for their "center"- they looked to a faraway King's court, and sent their money and their allegiance there. Those who became Christian looked to a faraway "Rome" for the Pope and the power-center of their religion, or to a faraway Bishop's cathedral, which was always built in a large city somewhere, far from the realities of the rural village life.

New technologies and ideas were coming into these lands, and the structure of society was being fundamentally changed. THIS was the central and main reason why Paganism was thwarted- it could not find a place to exist when the small-clan or family-centered group, the small village or township, was no longer the "center" of social life and power. Paganism was and is the religion of groups of kin and their sacred bond with their land. It is the religion of the ground and sky, and the bonds between people who know one another and care for one another.

The world was changing. The old tribal ways, the old way of the small kingdom was giving way to the age of the nation-state, to the age of all power being concentrated in the hands of a few, backed by a particular religious authority that would accept no competition on the spiritual level, and indeed, it could not accept competition; one of the central tenets that bound people to their king was religious; the King was consecrated by the Pope and Bishop as a righteous ruler under God. People have to believe in that God before they'll accept the hegemony of the King to the fullest, greatest extent.

These changes allowed for "Europe", as we know it, to come into existence. Old Europe was not "Europe" in any way we usually think of it; Old Europe was a place of mind-boggling cultural diversity and decentralized power. The Romans gave us the first taste of what massive power-concentration was like; they gave us the first nation-state in the West. Christianity was able to use the infrastructure of faded Rome to build it's own machine, and indeed, this is what happened. Had the Roman empire never succeeded, the Christianization of Europe might not have succeeded with the speed in which it did. The Romans laid down the template; Christians and Kings simply stepped into the vacant seat of power which was left after Rome crumbled.

Now, this brings me to the point I'd like to make with this post. I'd like to post a letter I sent to a friend here, in which I question whether or not a "nation-state" world, complete with a standardized morality for everyone in it, is actually as good or as valuable as we think. On one hand, the idea would seem to have some value- to look beyond tribal divisions and see all other humans as people of value, whose dignity shouldn't be violated, and to seek a world of peace, not a world of glory-seeking and constant tribal conflict. Some would say that this was part of the "good side" of Christianity- that the Christian social system was based on mutual love and respect for other human beings, and that this moral imperative crossed the divisions of tribe and clan.

But the real question here is not "was it good"? The real questions are these: Does it violate something essential in human nature to destroy local and individual cultures? Is it possible to create "one world" of morality and governance? As useful as it may seem to give everyone the same religious customs and morality, is such a thing desirable and possible to the bare-bone realities of human nature itself?

These are big questions. As Nietzsche said, we must question the value of the things we value- if we want to consider ourselves really moral, we have to know that the things we value truly have value, for there is much room for deception and other problems when it comes to custom and tradition, especially if those customs and traditions, put in place so long ago, began from a position of error. In my thinking, if human nature is soundly against something, then no matter how nice it sounds, or what good effects it may have in the short term, in the long term, it will fail.

Has the Christian social system failed Europe? And the Western world? Some say it has. I'll discuss that in a coming post.

Anyway, here's my letter:

* * *

The real question is this:

Does a universal morality, and the "world society" it creates, really work? Does it reflect a necessary truth about humankind, that we can use to better ourselves, or does it cross a line in human life that fails?

Last night I told you that tribal Europe was a somewhat dangerous place- and so it was. I told you that incoming religions- like Christianity- brought a new morality that took people beyond tribe and clan, and toward the new idea of "nation state". I told you (rightly) that "Europe" as we know it wasn't possible without this "across the board, boundary-crossing" morality.

But does it work, ultimately? We know it "worked" in the short term, even though dangers still existed and wars were certainly still a reality. I'm talking about on the level of the individual and the family- does it work?

Are humans meant, by nature, to be small-group dwellers, with a local moral focus, and local moral support? The earliest human societies were small tribes; that's a simple to see fact. Small tribes support and protect one another; they have their own troth or customs, they have their own ideas about how to live in this world.

Do we lose something when things get "really really big", such as the nation-state experiment that was started 1700 years ago? Organized warfare to the scale we know it was unheard of before this time. Pollution that could wreck the world was unheard of. That's two things I can think of that haven't been good developments. But what about the fact that you could expect people to be loving or forgiving if you traveled to a faraway Christian country? Surely that's worth something.

And I think it is worth something. But my question for you and for myself is: as nice as an idea may be, will it work- can it work- if it goes against something essential inside of humanity?

If we were meant to be tribal, meant to be focused on a clan/local group of people, and meant to take care of one another more (instead of allowing "the laws of the land" and "universal morality" to do our jobs for us) and if we were meant to express our individuality more than we do now, then our present system, positive though it may be in some ways, will never bring us where our hearts want to go.

I don't know. I have days where I'm tribalist all the way, clan-centric, but on other days I wonder if the "play nice world" can't also work. I don't know. In the end, I know how much madness is caused by globalization, and I shy back towards the family and friends group- because it's the only place I've ever known peace.

* * *

I've grown weary of attacking mainstream religious values based on what they believe. I'm interested now in dialogue regarding whether or not what they believe is sustainable in the face of human nature itself. If we want a "world that works", we have to stop subjecting ourselves to normalization stories that are contrary to what we know and feel on the deepest level about ourselves and about humanity.

But this goes further (and comes closer home) than a "world that works". This is ultimately about "lives that work"- because our real world is our home, our family, and our minds. Those are the places and the people that make up the realities of our everyday life. We have to have peace there. If we have peace there, and those around us also do, then our community will work. If communities have that, then that region will work. The "world that works" starts and ends nowhere else but right here, in me, and right there, in you.

Look at Asatru today- how does it work? On the local, small level of Kindred. Tiny communities, all over, doing things their own particular way. Their own Troth, their own ways, harmonious with one another. They don't look to distant cities and buildings for guidance; they look to one another. They look for support and protection to one another. THAT is a community in the best sense of the word. THAT, I feel, is what so many people lack. This structure for modern Heathenry neatly and perfectly reflects the social and religious structure of the very old times. Does Heathenry succeed for so many because it answers longings that are embedded naturally in their souls?

Bear in mind that my discussion in this letter has been about Christianity and Paganism as social systems- not religious systems. As religious systems, they have other realities that need closer inspection. But I will say this- in Heathenry or Asatru, you can't separate the religion from the community, because the community- the bonds of friendship, of work, of protection, of marriage, of procreation, of Troth- all of those ARE religious concepts. The Heathen social system and religious system are impossible to dis-entangle.

I look around at my world today- which is the end-product of the Christian social system- and I see so many people, everywhere, struggling hard (some unconsciously) to return to a more "local" focus on things- they want their own individual expression of sacredness; they want their own close friends group to be with, they don't want to be forced to accept cookie-cutter identity.

I suppose humans have always fought for personal identity, but never so hard as now. In our new secular world, boundaries have been lifted- the sky is quite literally the limit. Self-definitions can now rest on far more variables than ever before. Christianity as a social system is no more- Christianity only exists as a religious system now, and it has been forced to take a seat on the sidelines of society, along with all the other religions. A secular social system is in place, and in the west, this is a new development.

Most Christian denominations don't like this fact. They rail and struggle against it- when the courts of law remove their Ten Commandments displays, churches begin picketing. When establishments that perform services in violation of Christian morality are legally allowed to hold shop, picketers come and groups are formed to fight the law and change the law. Christianity, as a whole, was spoiled for 1700 years, as it was allowed to not only be a religion but a social system. Now, it has been reduced to a religion. From Popes to Ministers, this does not sit well.

As much as many fundamentalist Christians will tell you that they don't want to force Christianity onto anyone, and that it is a "choice", and so on, the reality is different; they want to influence laws and legislate their own form of morality. They are not content to be just a church were people come to pray and consider the religious teachings of a Bible or a Minister; they want to be so much more. They want to be present at every level. They want to be the backbone of social life and government- and they will use harsh tactics to get what they want.

I support the secular social system, but I know its dangers. There are things about it I don't like, but that is a discussion for another time.

I'll say what I do think: that the "social experiment" embodied in Christianity in the west seems to have failed. This is not to say that the religion itself failed, but that the social system it promulgated failed, and I believe it failed because humans are by nature not meant to live in nation-states, where the identity of the family and the identity of the local community are lost and the map is just a big set of boundaries with a uniform color and a big-letter label like "UNITED STATES" or "NORWAY" or "RUSSIA" is splashed. We aren't meant to lose our unique spiritual identities in the pews of a Church, believing just as everyone else does- and why? Because a group of men in a faraway land decided that this is how everyone should believe.

We aren't meant to live our lives working single-mindedly in a factory or on a farm, and sending our products out to a faceless, anonymous market, to feed some ruler's war machine or the invisible wheels of an economy that we don't understand, and which never seems to benefit us.

We aren't meant to gaze longingly at some faraway place that most of us will never see, and tell stories about faraway miracles and Gods, and go home dreaming about the "faraway" sacred places that we are told are so important to all humanity. What about the forest right near your house? Doesn't it have the spirits and powers that have helped protect your community since the time of your ancestors? What about the Gods of your fields, or the spirit of the community well or the nearby river that has given your grandparents and their grandparents water to drink?

What about the mountain overlooking your dwelling, where the Thunder God once fought a powerful giant, and killed him, thus saving your land? Don't think that Pagans who converted to Christianity were just happy to stare away to distant Jerusalem or Rome- before long, they had "saints" who had done miracles in their land, or been martyred in their lands, and shrines to those saints popping up in the countryside, where they could be closer to the sacred in their own country. This is the persistence of the Pagan- and human- need to tie the sacred to one's own sacred homeland and village.

This comes down to the sacred being something you can access right here and now. This is how it was, long ago, and how it can be again. This is how (I believe) human nature will make it, again.


Riverwolf said...

Hi--great, thoughtful post. For me, leaving Christianity was partly a way to get back to something that felt "close" to me. It had somehow lost its relevance and had become so abstract. Instead, what was important was the creek behind my house and keeping it clean, and trying to be a good friend, brother, son. Some think Christianity has lots to say about these things but I've come to see it as suffering from a poisonous, evangelical "us vs. them" mind-set.

We don't need that. Maybe Christianity worked for a while, and now maybe we're preparing for a transition to something new. I don't think humanity can ever go all the way back to how it "used to be." Our world is simply no longer confined to small clans or families. But maybe we can take the best of paganism, mix it with a dose of global consciousness and get something that will "work" for the next 1,000 years.

Thanks for keeping me thinking!yvzz

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of an article I read a while back...Same idea...about maybe we need new, smaller territories, communities...

Here is the link...

Seems people in different fields are considering similar things...

I find my own local gov't depressing and disturbing and greatly reducing my quality of life...

There is not much recognition of a 'love of place'...And people do not understand the healthy side of sometimes being a 'nimby'...