If Paganism is true, what are the implications for politics?
The above question is, in a nutshell, the subject of this blog – and yet it contains a pretty obvious error: the implication that “Paganism” is a systematic religion like Islam or Christianity. In fact, it isn’t. It’s a kaleidoscopic mélange of very different pantheons, rituals, mythologies, auguries, and bits of proverbial wisdom, representing a myriad of cultures and traditions from every part of the world. It might seem impossible to glean a coherent theory from this disparate jumble – and, indeed, we’ll find Pagan spirituality to be consistent with a wide range of political positions.
Still, looking beneath the surface, we’ll notice that all the religions denominated as “Pagan” have some important similarities. I’ve been discussing one of those over the last few blog postings: the fact that Pagan traditions are invariably polytheistic – that is, they all recognize a variety of Divinities, whose interactions are recounted in myths and legends. Usually, the Gods and Goddesses come across as mostly good, but They don’t always agree. Sometimes, They quarrel and fight.
The Abrahamic faiths teach that morality is what is pleasing to God. We Pagans, likewise, believe that moral behavior is what gratifies the Deities we venerate. There’s a serious difference, however. Whereas Jews, Christians, and Muslims receive – at least in theory – unequivocal guidance from Heaven, Pagans must contend with some degree of moral uncertainty, due to Divine discordance. Our sense of right and wrong tends to be more flexible – realistic, some might say.
Pagans are alive to the tragic elements of political life.
A monotheistic morality cannot be ambiguous. If there’s only one true God, and He’s all-powerful and good; and if He cares about human beings and wants them to be good also; then He must have provided them with definitive moral instructions – in His holy scriptures, presumably. Concrete circumstances can be complex, of course. It may not be immediately obvious how God’s commandments can be applied in the mundane sphere. Yet in the end, there can only be one valid answer. If there’s a disagreement on a moral issue, someone must be making a mistake.
Or, possibly, be an agent of the Devil.
Pagans, however, understand that things good in themselves frequently conflict – especially in the world of politics. Gods and Goddesses – those vast spiritual Powers that pervade the cosmos and give it depth and meaning – can take opposite sides on a political question, leaving Their worshippers anxious and perplexed. Our only desire is to do the right thing, yet all of our options seem to be somehow wrong. To remove one intolerable evil, we must abet another. Of the several sacred ideals that we’re sworn to protect, one at least must be sacrificed, to save the rest. Any decision will be harrowing – arguably immoral – but to do nothing, may invite the worst.
In previous blog postings, I’ve used the issue of abortion rights to illustrate the moral quandaries of political decision-making. It seems evident – to me, anyway – that both sides of this controversy are contending for genuine values, crucial to society, and that however the issue is resolved, something important will be lost. But that’s a Pagan perspective. Others will see less nuance here.
The pro-life (anti-abortion) faction will generally be coming from a fairly serious Christian position, which implies a relatively inflexible morality. Convinced as they are that they’re fighting God’s battle, they can’t entertain the thought that their antagonists might also be advocating for a worthy ideal. Hence the calls for a total ban on abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest – or even the health of the woman concerned. The other, pro-abortion rights, faction doesn’t ordinarily have a religious reason for rigidity, being mostly secularist, and yet – maybe in reaction to their blinkered foes – they find it hard to perceive the opposition as anything other than misogynistic cretins, who can’t be serious about that “life begins at conception” stuff.
The ancient Pagans considered fanatical zeal a social disease. Thucydides told, in his mournfully detached way, of the destructive effects of sectarian strife at the time of the Peloponnesian War. For Aristotle, virtue is found in the Golden Mean between two extremes. It’s fair to presume that an authentic Pagan, attentive to the wisdom of olden days, might be relatively favorable to compromise, and unlikely to view politics as a showdown between absolute good and evil. Pagans definitely aren’t crusaders or jihadis – a good thing these days, no doubt.
I’d like to think that the Pagan political attitude could be humanity’s salvation, but I wouldn’t count on it. Some situations are just too hot and heavy for the moderate approach to be feasible, and the abortion debate could be one of those. The real Pagan lesson isn’t that splitting the difference is always best – in a given instance, it may well not be – but rather that political perfection isn’t possible, no matter what we do. Every gain will come at a cost. Every victory contains the germ of future defeat. All that we do eventually crumbles into dust. The times are always out of joint.
We seek incompatible ideals. To please one Deity, we fatally offend another.
And, as I’ve said before, none of this is an excuse for apathy or cynicism. I’ll be expanding on that thought next time.
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