Surprises

This week I’ve had a number of surprises.

– I find that I’m teaching one of my courses in War Memorial Hall, one of the really classy and beautiful buildings on the U of G campus.

– The driver of the shuttle-bus that took me from the U of G to Humber College this week was someone I knew in high school. He was the chair of the local community theatre that I used to be involved in as a teenager.

– I visited an optometrist, and the bill for the visit and for new glasses with a new prescription came to more than $500.

– I watched “When the Moors Ruled in Europe”, a BBC4 documentary with Bettany Hughes, and suddenly found myself curious to visit an Islamic country.

– And, most surprising of all, more than 50 comments appeared in response to my thoughts on the passing of Deo’s Shadow. I’m feeling quite overwhelmed by that.

To those who read the piece, and commented to it, or to each other: thank you. All of you.

Let me draw attention to two of the comments in particular. First, this one by darakat_ewr, who said: “I became a pagan because I believe that there is either no god or many and out of the many polytheistic choices I had available paganism held the most interest for me and to some extent the right people. One of those persons was a bloke by the name of Brendan Cathbad Myers and he talked about things relating to paganism and philosophy (and the Celts) which made a hell of a lot of sense to me.“.

Well, that really amazed me. I had no idea that some of the things I’ve written over the years have changed people’s lives. As I mentioned to skiegazer, I usually get very few positive comments from readers and I still don’t really know how much impact, if at all, my books are having. So when I read Darakat’s comment, I was suddenly reminded me of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life“. This motivates me to remain in the community, and keep on writing the best books that I can.

The other comment that I wish to draw attention to was left late last night by “Anonymous”, with the headline “Sorry I’m Not Good Enough For You”. It reads, in part: “Sorry that I don’t need all your big fancy words and ideas. I know the Gods exists and I know that magick works, in my guts. To be told “that’s not good enough” angers me.“.

I got no sleep last night because of that comment. It is exactly the kind of anti-intellectual statement that makes me feel as if I have no place in the pagan movement, and motivates me to leave.


If I could speak to this person directly, (which I cannot do because he or she hid behind the shield of anonymity), I would say: You missed my point, and thus your anger is completely misplaced. This isn’t about you personally. There is no reason to feel threatened by someone, somewhere (in this case, me) who finds “gut instinct” an unreliable source of knowledge, and wants to encourage people to trust their intelligence instead.

I must resist the urge to write a long diatribe about the problems of instinct and the benefits of reason. But I would like to observe that the benefits of reason include electricity, flush toilets, metallurgy, glass, plastics, everything that went into the construction of the house you are sitting in, and this very internet we are using to have this conversation right now, and every other technological discovery that was made possible by people who solved their problems with scientific method, an intellectual and rational and non-“gut instinct” means of gaining knowledge.

I’d also like to observe that warmongering religious fanatics ‘reason’ with their gut and sweat and bones too. For example, Jerry Falwell used the same faculty of intuition to claim that gays, lesbians, abortionists, the ALCU, and so on, caused 9/11. How can we know that we are justified in our use of intuition, and the man who bombs an abortion clinic is not? The answer is, no one can know that. It’s his feeling, his intuition, his instinct, his personal vision of what God wants him to do. It is therefore right for him, according to intuitionism, and there is nothing in the world anyone can say against it – unless you give up intuitionism, to some extent, and appeal to reason. You could say that your instinct is that he is wrong, but then he could say that his instinct is that you are wrong, and then the difference would remain an impasse forever. Or, it might be resolved via the argument ad baculum. And that is a situation I’m sure no one wants.

Indeed I wonder what certain pagans of the “gut intuition” school find so threatening about the use of reason. Do they think that logic is dispassionate and unemotional, and that logical people end up cold-hearted and emotionless, like Spock, or The Borg? Do they find their intuitive beliefs so gratifying that they cannot allow anything to interfere with them? Do they worry that they may have to re-evaluate their beliefs and their lives, and perhaps change their lives as a result of that re-evaluation, as Deo did?

Let me say to everyone that when your beliefs are grounded in reason, the quality of your inner life will be far, far better. Let me add that the use of reason doesn’t shut out one’s feelings, or the benefit of the arts or of human relationships, or any of the things that make life go well. Indeed in classical philosophy Reason was the very presence of God within the human soul. It is by means of reason that a human being could get inside the mind of God, and obtain an experience of eternity. Reason is a spiritual thing.

But perhaps Anonymous isn’t interested in finding that out, and would rather preserve his or her gut intuitions, and continue to be uselessly angry at me. There’s nothing I can do about that, I suppose.

Let me give the last word to Deganawidah, the aboriginal mystic who created the Great Peace of the Iroquois Confederacy:

Reason is a power that works among all minds alike. When once Reason is established, all the minds of all mankind will be in a state of Health and Peace. “*

That is my hope for the world too.

* cited in Wallace, “The White Roots of Peace” U of Penn. Press, 1946, pg. 41.

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19 Responses to Surprises

  1. wildwolflupa says:

    Ok, I know you said that you had the last word. I have been monitoring this thread and watching all the different comments. I have but one question.

    Could you not have a blend of “instinct” and reason? I like to think that I both acknowledge my “gut instincts” but am intelligent enough to question them, to examine them, and find out what I can about them.

    Ok, so I have more than one question, but I will leave them for another time. I get the feeling you are eager to end this thread, but I had to ask that one question.

    (Does faith fall into instinct or reason?)

    Lupa

    • dubhlainn says:

      I would add to that, all of the items Brendan mentions above that were creative by reason, science, etc. Started as “gut-instinct”.

      Gut-instinct is an incredibly important part of scientific method. At least the common form of scientific method I was taught in school. Where the very first step is using your observations and experiences (ie gut-instinct) to form a hypothesis.

      Important to both science and, I would argue, religion and philosphy is that it can’t end there. We must test gut-instincts, and learn about them, and research, and then what happens? We come back to gut-instinct and start all over again.

      What frustrates me about academics on occasion is the perception (from a lay persons point of view) that they feel they have it all figured out. I think in the reviews I have made of Brendan’s books I have mentioned how his language, which is very positive and leaves nor room for differeing opinion in some cases, has turned me off. I understand (because he told me) that this is a common practice in philosophical writing but it is still a turn off to me.

      • wildwolflupa says:

        I look at it as a challenge, especially when its something I don’t agree with. I wouldn’t say it leaves no room for a differing opinion. I think it just shows that the writer has formed a theory, and then set out to prove it. Backed up the belief with fact, through research. Person A may believe xyz to be true because abc factually prove it so, where as person B may have a different perspective on the same belief, and have just as valid proof.

        I do agree that science does have instinct at its core. But some things are just based on faith, instinct, and the belief in that. There is nothing wrong with questioning those beliefs, we are human after all, and very inquisitive. To believe without question can be dangerous. But not all answers are so black and white, or proved through reason.

      • admin says:

        Concerning what frustrates you about academics (and my writing style):

        In my writings, I often use categorical propositions. (The first sentence of chapter 124 of OSV, “Some problems in life are universal”, is a categorical proposition.)

        This very terse way of writing has the advantage of being very precise, and also very easy to judge as true or false.

        Yet since a categorical proposition is normally not hedged about with relativist disclaimers, it may appear to a non-academically-trained person as an expression of arrogant dogmatism.

        Yet I think this is a misplaced perception. The very point of philosophy is that all beliefs are open to question and subject to critical scrutiny. A philosopher who claims to have all he answers has, in effect, become a lobbyist.

        And anyway, for my part, I don’t claim to have all the answers. I only claim to have a few very good answers about some problems that are genuinely important – but again, these too are open to further examination. On pg. 229 of OSV I identified a problem for which I do not yet have an answer: and as a gesture of respect to the reader, I said so in print.

    • admin says:

      Well, I don’t need to have the absolute last word, but I was hoping this thread could be over sooner rather than later. I do the reason v intuition debate in the classes I teach at the uni, and I’ve heard it all before.

      As to a blend of instinct and reason might be acceptable: well I’ve already pointed out that reason does not necessarily exclude one’s feelings or one’s spiritual experiences. There is an entire branch of philosophy – aesthetics – which examines questions to do with feelings, emotions, and other similar sensibilities, especially those concerned with beauty. I’m very interested in aesthetics, and I’m growing more convinced that aesthetic concerns have an important role to play in ethics.

      But it’s a very big and complex problem, and I’ll have to go into that in more detail in another LJ post, or in a future published work.

  2. dubhlainn says:

    Brendan,

    I also believe that you have a harder time accepting and taking to heart the positive comments and re-enforcement you receive than the negative.

    You have touched many of us in the pagan community. Won the Mt. Haemus award, have been featured on at least two of the most popular Pagan PodCasts in the world (to rave reviews) have received fantastic reviews of your books, have expanded and changed the lives of many people who never had access to philosophical thought before your writings, and in many ways have shaped the current discussion going on.

    This happens to me as well. I can receive ten positive comments but the one negative one would be the one that throws me for a loop and the one I hold on to most tightly.

    If your changing life and experiences leads you away from Paganism I would support that whole heartedly. But if you are debating leaving because of a few, frankly, mean spirited people who most likely have had no contact with your work to begin with.. well… I just don’t want to see that happen.

    Besides, anyone paying attention, anyone heard you sing “The Northwest Passage” on DruidCast for instance, would know that you are far from only experinecing your path in an only intellectual, non-spiritual way.

    Just my opinion of course, I won’t bother you any more about it.

    • admin says:

      I also believe that you have a harder time accepting and taking to heart the positive comments and re-enforcement you receive than the negative.

      That is very possible. I’m a Cancer after all. (Note the irony there!)

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m giving away a copy of “The Other Side of Virtue” on my podcast, and have heard nothing but raves about it. People are excited to talk about your writing, and even more excited at the prospect of owning one of your books (and signed at that!)

        I popped over here after seeing that your talk was posted to the OBOD website to congratulate you, and to propose just what D has already proposed. Maybe it’s easier for you to hear the negative than the positive! I know that I suffered from this very tendency for many years and it took a lot of hard work to overcome. I read positive commentary about you and your writing all the time. I wonder how much better you would feel if you were able to really take that feedback to heart as much as you seem to take the negative to heart?

        Blessings on your journey, Brendan!

        Fey

    • jdhobbes says:

      Positive comments allow us to be proud of our accomplisments, but negative comments force us to rethink, analyse, and grow.

      Re-thinking is scary. Growing is messy. Change is not always fun. But even if you rethink your position because of a negative comment, you can still come back to your original thought and say “I’ve considered your statement, but I’m sticking to my guns.” And if that negative comments allows you to change your position, that can be a good thing.

      Quite frankly though, if the person with the negative comment is going to hide behind an Anonymous mask, take that in consideration too. If you’re going to be a jerk, at least be a public jerk with a paper trail about it. It’s not a bad thing to consider the source of a comment as well as its content. A criticism from you will carry more weight with me than a criticism from a person I don’t know and/or don’t respect.

      Please don’t let the random potshots from the peanut gallery (from those who would rather criticize than do something constructive) detract from your contributions. They are not worth it, and you are worth more.

  3. alfrecht says:

    While I think there is some room to grapple with the definitions implied, I’ve always liked what Joannes Scottus Eriugena said about reason vs. faith: faith cannot be at odds with reason, nor reason with faith, because if either is the case, then reason is not truly reason, nor is faith truly faith. If only more people knew of Eriugena…!

  4. misslynx says:

    I got no sleep last night because of that comment. It is exactly the kind of anti-intellectual statement that makes me feel as if I have no place in the pagan movement, and motivates me to leave.

    It seems to me that you’re giving way too much power to some anonymous moron on the internet. There are always, in any community, going to be shallow and superficial people, and people who are more interested in sniping at anyone who’s actually doing something useful than they are in doing something useful themselves. That’s by no means specific to paganism; I’ve seen it time and time again in all kinds of different communities, be they religious, political, creative or even academic.

    And particularly when offered the shield of anonymity, many people feel free to let fly with the obnoxious statements they might think twice about if they had to actually stand behind them. I opted to disable anonymous comments on my LJ a long time ago – you might want to think about doing the same.

    I have a long history – albeit mostly from my younger days – of getting involved in various groups or communities with high ideals, only to eventually end up leaving in frustration because of the behaviour of what in retrospect was usually a comparatively small number of people. I wasn’t able to stay comfortably in any community until I consciously decided to stop giving assholes so much power over me.

    Why should some random idiot who won’t even put his or her name to that comment be able to make you feel like you have no place in the pagan community? What gives that person’s comment that much weight or authority? Who elected them spokesperson for the entire pagan community?

    The hard lesson I had to learn – which it sounds like you perhaps still need to – is that people like that only have as much power over your life as you are willing to give them. They can’t keep you awake at night, much less drive you out of a community you’ve been a part of for years, unless you choose to give them that much control over you.

    There is never going to be a community that is completely free from shallow, stupid and/or annoying people, and if you can’t feel at home in any community that contains any of those, you’re going to end up being a bitter, lonely hermit. The alternative is to take back the power you’ve been giving them, to consciously decide that they don’t matter to you and that their words have no power over you or your life, and to focus on finding and connecting with the people who are worthy of your respect and consideration.

    On which note, you might find the projects mentioned in this post interesting…

  5. darakat_ewr says:

    This particular “Anon” seems to me to be angered buy the fact that you question “their faith”. I think you have made this point before but without a reason, without a religious (or even sometimes factual) truth behind that faith we can’t really know if “faith” is actually a belief or a rational excuse to not think.

    p.s. I didn’t know what I wrote was going to be so influential, I just wanted to make the point that you don’t just make up shit and write stuff that makes sense and is tied to well founded thinking, unlike certain authors we could mention.

  6. I have always found that the people who are least secure in the faith are the ones who are most strident in defending it, even when no attack is meant. Reason and even logic are instrumental in helping us to be comfortable and secure in our beliefs.

    You have, as long as I’ve been reading your posts and your work, never, to my knowledge, gone out of your way to attack someone’s faith or beliefs. That this ill-written and misguided individual chose to make such an accusation is prima facie evidence that his faith is NOT secure, because it was necessary for him to belittle your own beliefs in order to bolster his own.

    It is likely that he suffers from a common problem among relatively-new pagans: the necessity to attack any belief or even position not his own, because he’s not sure where he stands yet. That he chose to make such a comment anonymously is even further indication that he has neither the emotional nor intellectual wherewithal to defend his own position.

    I’m sorry that he cost you sleep. It is a testament to your own integrity that it bothered you to have him say these things. Mind you, while the unexamined life is “not worth living”, there is such a thing as picking it to death, my friend. *grin*

    You’re a good man, a good representative of your faith, and a helluva scholar; an ollamh, if you will. Never doubt it. Unfortunately, the more you “skyline” yourself by your efforts, the more people will want to take potshots at you.

    Try to duck more. *cheesy grin*

  7. lupabitch says:

    I’m currently dating someone who has been an atheistic pagan for a few years. It’s been tough in some respects, because more than anyone else, in some ways he’s really challenged me on what I believe. Not in a disrespectful manner, but he has made me really question some of my beliefs and assumptions about my cosmology.

    Ultimately, this has been healthy for me, even as it’s been challenging. I haven’t given up anything I believe piecemeal, but I’ve been given good reasons to look at my beliefs, why I believe them, and even what the function of belief really is. I may not always agree with my lover, but I am grateful for his input.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Like others, I too believe that reason can and should be tempered with intuition. I think that there is room for both ‘higher’ and ‘basal’ sensibilities. It is clear that sticking to just intuition can be dangerous (such as in some of the examples you have given, Brendan).

    Perhaps the issue here is one of semantics, as it seems that your take on reason might be quite different from what others see it as.

    I do not think it is unfair to see reason as emotionless and dispassionate, as this historically has often been the case. There is something very beautiful in your reading of ‘reason’, one that sounds to me like a marriage of both logic and intuition.

    Just my two cents.

    Slàinte!

    Laurel

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’d say the answer to your rhetorical question above is ‘yes’ – John Q. Pagan’s impression of logic does owe a lot (too much) to Mr. Spock. When you say ‘logic’ and ‘reason’, the average non-philosopher imagines you mean the sort of materialistic positivism that would completely negate and dismiss questions of spirituality, rather than help answer them.

    (Why am I envisioning Brendan by the revel fire at some festival, trying to persuade a skeptical fire-keeper that the clear liquid he’s carrying is lighter fluid to keep the fire going, not water to put it out …)

    It’s a job hazard of academia, having to correct laypeople’s caricatured impressions of what we study. But being able to point to the existence of your book – over two hundred pages of logical arguments for, not against, spiritual ideals – should greatly help your case.

    I don’t disagree with what you say about the value of reason, but neither do I get the impression that you have anything fundamentally against intuition (when you’re not busy being frustrated with fools, that is). Aristotle would have said that virtue is the middle ground between excess and deficiency. Your complaint seems to me to be about a deficiency of reason, or the substitution of intuition where this is not appropriate. Likewise, I think the anti-intellectuals are not fundamentally against reason, so much as they are defensive of the value of intuition. The ideal case would be intuition tempered by reason, I would think; but if you disagree, I would be eager to hear your point of view.

    Meg

  10. Anonymous says:

    Don’t give up!!,

    Dr. Myers,
    a lot of us theistic / magick loving / gut instinct Pagans LOVE to be forced to think. To be challenged. To read and think and face, in works of Logic and History and Philosophy and Theology, the mirror of our contemplation that helps us to decipher the next piece in the puzzle of our spiritual lives.

    Inspired in part by conversations here, and at The Wild Hunt in the last few weeks I have created a site called The Pagan Collegium.

    http://thepagancollegium.wordpress.com/

    Would you please take a moment to poke around there and to consider taking part in this project?

    Thank you very much,
    Pax

    http://chrysalis1witchesjourney.wordpress.com/

  11. Anonymous says:

    Ok…so they won’t listen….now what

    To quote you:
    “I got no sleep last night because of that comment. It is exactly the kind of anti-intellectual statement that makes me feel as if I have no place in the pagan movement, and motivates me to leave.

    If I could speak to this person directly, (which I cannot do because he or she hid behind the shield of anonymity), I would say: You missed my point, and thus your anger is completely misplaced. This isn’t about you personally. There is no reason to feel threatened by someone, somewhere (in this case, me) who finds “gut instinct” an unreliable source of knowledge, and wants to encourage people to trust their intelligence instead.”

    Ahh….live and let live. Maybe someday, when they need the benefits of intellect, they will appreciate you more.

    But, the scientific method has its own problems. Science can only do so much in the way it tells its story. And, right brain work is usually described poetically, which makes it tough to bring into the overall picture of knowledge.

    You may be suffering from being projected on, having someone thinking that because you are “this person”, that someone with less confidence in their beliefs hears your opinion and feels so less than that they are unable to stand up and say, ok, well, thank you, but I “know what I know”, and I do not want to “know why I know what I know.” It can be very hard to appreciate that rejection of reason, but really, this is the perspective some other people need in order to go “to sleep at night themselves”, and not be riddled with anxiety. Not everyone wants to turn their minds upside down and go through “ego death” of their cherished beliefs, but some of us do and need to. I have learned many years ago with working with addicts in recovery that not everyone wants to know “why or how” but just do it. Hobbes comment about the restaurant menu and “yes it is good for you, just do it,” reminds me of how some addicts, minds already a mess, need to get on with the practical stuff of healing. The explanations come later, when they are ready. I think some of our elders, some of the people in our communities, are ready, and others are here because it “feels good.” Problem is, in our community, like the recovering addict community, too many people take things personally, at times, and get right “bent” over it. I am just as guilty as I charge above as well, but I recognize it, and I have done the work, so it causes less grief. Makes my ritual work stronger too, but even without that, my paganism is clearer to me because of it. My faith is not about pleasing you, or justifying it or rationalizing it, but when I cannot adequately describe it in practise, I have a problem.

  12. Anonymous says:

    categorical propositions

    It is worth mentioning that categorical proposition as a method does not generally allow people to respond equally with the writer. What I mean is, the writer appears to be talking from a position of authority – much like a teacher in a classroom or a judge in a courthouse. This stance certainly angered me when I first encountered it on a forum, and it took some self-searching to realize I was over-reacting. The person writing obviously had no idea why I was angry.

    As a pagan I would say there is room for everyone, but don’t think for a moment that your philosophical approach is worth more than my instinctive one. All together and as one, not one above another.

    Peace.

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