Sunday, February 25, 2007

People Need the Magical Side

Last week in The Washington Post, there was an interesting article about an Army chaplain named Don Larsen who'd applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. Military. He'd been doing his duty as a Pentecostal chaplain, but "inwardly . . . was torn between Christianity's exclusive claims about salvation and a 'universalist streak' in his thinking". Later in the article, Larsen is quoted thus:
"You can't intellectually talk about witchcraft. You gotta show up," he says. "What Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and a lot of us universalists think is, people need the magical side, the mythological side, of religion.

"We don't need more Calvinist rationalizing. We need mystery. We need horizons. We need journeys."
This is not a new suggestion, obviously, but I am increasingly convinced of the basic truth of the idea. In a recent post, I tentatively embarked on a discussion of these kinds of issues. I claimed that liberal atheists' excessive focus on religion qua religion obscures the reality of what are really political problems (while tending to miss how religious belief and practice actually operate in people's lives). Of course, it is the very exclusivity of, for example, Christianity's claims of salvation that rankles.

And the invocation of "mystery" does not sit well. There is a tendency to associate the word with obscurantism and to think that people simply want to be told what to do and how to behave and would rather not know the facts. I used to maintain that any suggestion of spirituality was anathema; I didn't want to have anything to do with it. But I no longer think it's as simple as that.

A few years ago I read Karen Armstrong's A History of God and noticed with interest that, as she told it, throughout history when the more mystical aspects of religion have come to the fore, groups of people have been more tolerant of each other. It seemed to me that problems have arisen when religious groups have attempted to define and explain their belief in rationalist terms. We tend to, I think, pass over those periods of tolerance and instead define religious activity in black and white terms as defined by the most intolerant, fundamentalist, rationalist believers. (Further, I think that the idea of "intellectual" activity has been overly associated with rationality in this way--note Larsen's comment that "you can't intellectually talk about witchcraft".)

It may seem as if I'm denigrating rational (or scientific) inquiry in this line of thought, but I assure you I am not. Elsewhere, it will be seen that I often criticize political figures for making policy decisions irrationally, and followers for ignoring available evidence and facts irrationally. I see no contradiction, but I know that I will need to flesh out the difference.

Ok, I'm still in the very early stages of my thinking about this, and there is much to read and to write. More to come.


Andrew said...

I can highly recommend Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy if you're interested in this field of religion/mysticism as experience as opposed to doctrine.

Richard said...

Thanks Andrew! I'll make a note of it.

Andrew said...

Just to add, Richard, religion, magic(K) etc, "more in heaven and earth" and all that is deep in both directions, good v bad, selflessness v selfishness. I'm pretty wary of the Wicca direction which, not being quite sure of the various apt terminologies, I'd describe as the occult rather than the mystical. Mystical being to me the idea of the experience of pure mind or pure consciousness, the cloud of unknowing as described in a famous mystical Christian work, whereas the occult is concerned with powers, esoteric knowledge, contacting various spirits, etc which I think is dangerous territory. The Nazis, for example, deep into the occult. Aleister Crowley, a startling but genuinely detestable man, happy to call himself The Beast, or 666, a bit of a hero to the Wiccan school.

Richard said...

Yes, you make a good point. I'm not meaning to talk about the occult and that kind of thing in this line of thought, so thanks for pointing that out.