“The sacred, I shall say, is that which acts as your partner in the search for the highest and deepest things: the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
— Circles of Meaning, Labyrinths of Fear
I don’t normally see omens or other messages from the gods in the way many other pagans say they do. I’m not especially interested in ritual or magic or spellcraft. I do not sense auras, I do not feel the energies, I do not read tarot cards or cast the runes. In fact, around ten years ago or so, I hit upon one of the most liberating and life-changing propositions ever to have entered my mind, which is that the worship of the gods is not what matters. What, then, am I still doing in the pagan community? And if the worship of the gods isn’t what matters, then what does?
People and relationships matter. The earth matters. Life, yours and mine, matters. Art, music, culture, science, justice, knowledge, history, peace, and any other similar thing which enriches your relationships with the world and with people, also matter. The extent to which life is worth living matters. Death, yours and mine, matters. And thinking about these things is what matters too.
My path is the path of a philosopher, and it is a spiritual path. It’s about finding answers to the highest and deepest questions that face humankind, and finding those answers by means of my own intelligence. It’s about not waiting for the word to come down from anyone else, not society, not parents, not politicians or governments, not teachers, not religion, not even the gods. In that sense it is a humanist activity, but it is an activity which elevates ones humanity to the highest sphere. That is what matters. This was the path of all the greatest philosophers through history. It was the path of the great pagan predecessors like Hypatia and Diotima and Plato; and also the path of more recent predecessors like James Frazer and Robert Graves. This is the path of knowledge; and knowledge is enlightenment, and knowledge is power.
Some people, and some religious groups, might see that as hubris. But I see it as humanity’s true calling. I’ve been working for decades to create a philosophical world view which is rigorously rational but at the same time recognizably spiritual, uplifting, accessible to anyone, and genuinely helpful. If I have crafted it well, it will be my legacy. (Although I also want to buy land on which to build a temple. But that’s another story.)
This shouldn’t be controversial, but it is. Last year, a number of individuals made a very uncharitable interpretation of a throwaway comment of mine, and concluded that I was somehow disparaging them personally. Some even demanded my forcible removal from the pagan community. So let’s look again at the statement “the worship of the gods is not what matters”. It is not the same as the statement “the gods do not exist”. It says that whether the gods exist or do not exist, I shall have other primary concerns. For there are other things that matter too – and some of those other things matter more. And some of those other things which matter more are sacred things. And some of those sacred things which matter more are things to do with the human realm: such as friendship, justice, and integrity. Thus the path is a humanist path, yet also a spiritual path.
Suppose the gods do exist. Then relate to them the same way you might relate to anybody else. There’s a form of meditation that I still do once in a while, perhaps not often enough, in which I contemplate a certain Celtic goddess whom I shall not name here. My view of Herself is strongly pantheist, and as I see it speaking of Herself and speaking of the earth is almost the same thing. She also personifies certain moral values and certain relationships that I think are important. There’s a bowl on top of one of my bookshelves into which I pour an offering to Herself every time I have beer or wine in the house. And in turn, I like to imagine that She looks after me. But if you think about it, that’s a very minimalist kind of religious practice. There’s no casting of circles, no raising of energies, no chanting and no invocations. There’s just me, doing my thing, and talking to Herself once in a while.
But in my relationship with Herself, I do not bow. I do not obey. I do not ‘worship’. Perhaps this is one of the last remaining strands of my Catholic upbringing, but to me the word ‘worship’ means absolute unquestioning affirmation of the authority of the deity. I’ll not have that in my life. If you are wise, neither will you. The gods, if they exist, are just the people who happen to live on the other side. And they shall be friends to me, or strangers to me, the same as any of you.
I was initiated into the 1st degree of a certain lineage of Alexandrian Wicca. I’ve also followed the Druidic path, co-founded a Druidic community called The Order of the White Oak, and in 2001 I even followed the Druidic path back to Ireland. I have been a member of the pagan community for more than twenty years. So I’m not coming to this as a dilettante, or a dabbler. I was once offered my second degree but we never could find a time to do the ritual, and noting came of it. But that’s okay. Now all I really want to do in the pagan community is write books, talk about the ideas in them, play guitar, help out at events, and “dance sing feast make music and love” with good people. I want to help create a spiritual culture that is intellectually inquiring, artistically flourishing, environmentally aware, and socially just.
And that, also, is what matters.