Back to previous post: Open thread 221

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: The first thing that came to our heads

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

November 17, 2018

Two, or possibly three, sermons
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:30 AM * 71 comments

I believe it is traditional to apologize when one hasn’t been blogging for a while, and I am indeed sorry. It’s been a tough few years, for Reasons both public and not, nor am I out of it. I can’t commit to writing with any regularity1. But I wanted to muse on something at length rather than in a Twitter thread, so hi.

Last weekend, someone on the line between “person I know of” and “person I know slightly”—Guardian columnist Andrew Brown—tweeted about Le Guin and a psalm.

He sent me the text of the sermon (it’s now available here) and we chatted a little. I didn’t say anything particularly smart, only partly because I was standing on a bitterly cold train platform in Antwerp, thinking, as we all were that weekend, about 1918. But one thing that struck me powerfully is how much, all unrealizing, I had built the foundations for my morality on Le Guin. Although she and I don’t overlap in terms of either religion or faith, being read her work as a child and reading it myself as an teen and adult taught me values that I try to express in my life: the importance of communities of love; how names can both create and destroy us; how dear and deep the silence is that lurks beneath and between all of our words.

And a little something about nationalism, a quote I’ve brought with me through life in three countries:

“How does one hate a country, or love one? Tibe talks about it; I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply? What is love of one’s country; is it hate of one’s uncountry? Then it’s not a good thing. Is it simply self-love? That’s a good thing, but one mustn’t make a virtue of it, or a profession… Insofar as I love life, I love the hills of the Domain of Estre, but that sort of love does not have a boundary-line of hate. And beyond that, I am ignorant, I hope.”
—Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, The Left Hand of Darkness

Boundaries are much in my mind right now, because I live in the Netherlands on the basis of my British passport and, like winter, Brexit is coming. It’s a division born out of Tibe’s thinking, not Estraven’s, out of a definition of us expressed in terms of not-us2. This is related to something that Patrick once quoted Samuel Delany’s thinking on: how definitional arguments, by their nature, invariably wind up quibbling over edge cases at the expense of examining the broad middle.3

Not even remotely coincidentally, my pastor also preached about Armistice Day4. The readings for the day included the widow of Zarephath and the widow’s mite. He pointed out how both passages focus on women giving away their last resources. Giving, in effect, their lives. And November 11 is the feast of Saint Martin of Tours, whose hagiography includes not only having given away half his cloak to a beggar in midwinter, but also forsaking arms in an early version of conscientious objection that nearly cost him his life. (He later became a monk, then a bishop.)

Unlike the widows in those texts, unlike Martin offered to, unlike those poor young men in the trenches and the mud, most of us don’t give our lives in a single act. But you know, we do all give our lives, day by day, in what we do and do not, what we say and don’t say. How we choose to do and say those things. And that leads me back to another quote from The Left Hand of Darkness, something else I learned so early that I don’t recall not knowing it:

In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings, and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means.
— Genly Ai

I grew up believing, and still believe, that means shape the ends they lead to. That we cannot get to good ends by bad means. That, as it says in our Commonplaces along the side of the Making Light front page, you cannot pluck safety from the arms of an evil deed. And that’s personal as well as political: I don’t just believe that good government cannot come from unfair elections; I also don’t believe that you can base your own truths on a foundation of lies. In a funny way, this circles right back to Delany…are our lives defined by our edge-case behaviors, or by the broad middle of what we do over time? Unless we have the grace or the folly to commit a single, isolated act of great good or evil, it’s usually the latter.

This goes all the way down to the core of our beings. One of the ends that the means of our lives shape is ourselves. Who we are is not just described by what we do; it’s created and formed by it. I think a lot about Harry Turtledove’s excellent short story Shtetl Days in this context: how practices and habits seep inward and recreate us in their image. That which we do often becomes easier. And the barriers to that which we do seldom (like, sigh, blogging) grow.

Another quote from The Left Hand of Darkness, in the same speech as the one above:

I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political.
— Genly Ai

Ai is talking about his mission to the planet Gethen, but we’re all on our own missions through the world. We are all, as we go through our lives, alone and vulnerable, however much we seek refuge in crowds and organizations, clans and tribes. We wake up inside our own skins and skulls, and we go to sleep there; eventually we die there too. Our relationships are personal, and we create them from who we are, and they in turn create us.

I don’t have a sweeping conclusion to this; I’m not trying to lead anyone to either mysticism or martyrdom (though the seeds of both lie here). I just wanted to say: you matter. What you do matters. What you become matters. Do your best.

And I love you. I’ll be back as and when I can.


  1. The ritual of apology can easily become an impediment to going back to writing, so I’m going to leave it there.
  2. We in the science fiction community are familiar with the places that approach leads. But we’ve made a lot of soup from that bone; I’m cooking something a little different in this post.
  3. I’ve been thinking about this in a completely different context at work, specifically, how people read user interface labels.
  4. Remembrance Day isn’t much of a thing here. But although the Netherlands was neutral in World War I, it was not untouched by it. And he is fond of Flanders.
Comments on Two, or possibly three, sermons:
#1 ::: rm ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2018, 09:21 AM:

Abi, I feel blessed to read your thoughts at whatever frequency of publication works for you. This post in particular was one I needed to read today. I'll be glad to read again in a day or a decade.

#2 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2018, 10:14 AM:

Thank you for stopping by and for the essay and thoughts.

#3 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2018, 10:48 AM:

Diane Duane put it, in one of her Trek novels:
The universe is more concerned with ends than with means; beginnings must be clean to be of profit.

I keep wondering when the people living in the middle third of the US forgot that they have relatives who moved to the coasts, or at least to the big cities.

#4 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2018, 05:04 PM:

Good to hear from you again, abi.

#5 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2018, 05:48 PM:

Thank you for your blessing of words and thought and time. A good beginning -- who knows where we'll end.

#6 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2018, 07:52 PM:

Abi, it's so good to hear from you again. Please don't let any bad feelings from not having written, keep you from writing! We want to hear from you, whatever the schedule.

And I feel guilty myself over it, but I can't not say this: ....Charles Delany? Probably you were aiming at "Chip" but missed?

#7 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 02:48 AM:

Good to see you again. May the rough parts of your life grow smoother.

#8 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 03:40 AM:

Thank you for the welcome back, peeps.

David, you're completely right, both in fact and cause. I was so busy spelling his surname right that I...well. There you go. Thank you for pointing it out. Really.

#9 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 10:25 AM:

Welcome back, and you're not alone -- a lot of us seem to be feeling overburdened these days.

#10 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 10:31 AM:

abi!!!! Hi hi hi!!! Eeeee....!

Okay, now to go read the post....

abi's posted! eeeee! ee-eeeee! eeeee! eeeee! eeeee!

#11 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 11:36 AM:

Nice to hear from you, abi. I follow you on twitter, but never tweet myself, so it's nice to be able to respond.

Who we are is not just described by what we do; it’s created and formed by it.

This. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Annie Dillard, who says “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing."

She goes on to talk about the value of a schedule as (though she doesn't use these words) an exercise in mindful use of our time and thus our lives. "A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

#12 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 03:05 PM:

I like the phrase "a net for catching days".

#13 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 03:12 PM:

@0: What you do matters.

This is what scares me. Because its corollary, "What you don't do matters", too.

#14 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 03:16 PM:

13
"Sins of omission and commission" comes to mind, as another version.

#15 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 03:26 PM:

"What we have done, and what we have failed to do," is the formula in my neck of the ecclesiastical woods. (In Dutch it's terser: in doen en laten, in doing and letting.)

#16 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 04:01 PM:

These ideas are important and I will probably be chewing on them for some time. In my case, the heart-weighing scene from American Gods left a pretty big impression, though not as healthy perhaps as it could be.

I hope your life gets lighter, Abi. And everyone.

#17 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 06:03 PM:

Great to have you back here. I cherish everything I see from you, and this in particular I needed right now. Thank you for writing it.

In the church here, it's "by what we have done and what we have left undone."

#18 ::: cajunfj40 ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 06:44 PM:

Good to see you here again, abi!

As always, an interesting post. Plenty to chew on there.

Outside of ML, the tweets you send wending into my timeline are often interesting, and always welcome. The replies you sometimes send to those I send wending into your timeline are also quite welcome. Given who I am, and how I'm wired, I tend towards oversharing at times, and I thank you for responding as you do. Don't feel that you're required to, though - everyone has a right to defend their own time, and I don't take offence to a lack of a like, or reply, or similar. Similarly, I hope you (and others I see there, this is a general thing!) don't take offence at a lack of response from me. With so much going on, I simply can't keep up. Sometimes, I just can't find the right way to respond, and "like" doesn't seem to fit, and, well, there doesn't seem to be a good button for "sitting there in a companionable silence, available if needed, but, not knowing what it is in particular that one needs, waiting for a direct invitation to offer, and not wanting to launch into some sort of response for what may be meant as a hypothetical, or a shout into the void, or some other communication that neither expects nor needs nor wants a response."

Sometimes, we just want to make a "noise", however small and ephemeral it is.

The world is a better place with you in it - hope to see you here more often!

#19 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 07:20 PM:

Nor shalt thou take sleep under thy soft eyelids,
before reviewing each of thy day's deeds three times:
"where have I gone astray? what have I wrought?
and what that was my task remained undone?"
Starting from the first, proceed to each in turn,
and when thou did some base thing, reprove thyself;
and when a fine and noble thing: rejoice.

[from the Carmen Aureum, a.k.a. Golden Verses, attributed to Pythagorean circles, date dubious, but parts of it cited in the middle third century B.C.]

#20 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2018, 10:31 PM:

Thank you for this, abi.

My personal sense of ethics is profoundly influenced by The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. We cannot justify the greatest good for the greatest number if it means the suffering of even one person.

I am also inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin's example, how she continued to learn as she grew older, how she reexamined her earlier works, and how she became more of an activist.

#21 ::: Lydy Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2018, 03:44 AM:

I have often thought that the problem with discussing means vs. ends is that we are much too confident of being able to distinguish between the two. In most of the ways in which our actions matter, there are neither clear beginnings nor clear endings, and our ends are other people's means. Outcomes matter, but acting like the things that we do to create those outcomes are not also, themselves, outcomes can lead one astray. Actions happen within complex matrices, not in simple causal chains. A hurt or dishonesty can propagate far beyond its intended outcome, but so can kindness and honesty.

(So glad to see you back, Abi.)

#22 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2018, 06:41 AM:

Lydy:

Yes, absolutely; I hadn't thought about it like that. The relationship I was seeing between means and ends stems from their essential unity, in the same way that (as I was trying to say), the relationship between actions and essence does.

This sounds like über-level lumper talk (in the sense of the lumper/splitter dichotomy). But about the time the relationship gets as circular as it is in both of those contexts, it's time to ask one's self whether they are the same thing. The outcomes you describe are proof, and food for thought.

#23 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2018, 10:29 PM:

Lydy Nickerson #21: the problem with discussing means vs. ends is that we are much too confident of being able to distinguish between the two. In most of the ways in which our actions matter, there are neither clear beginnings nor clear endings, and our ends are other people's means.

QFT. A phrase that comes to mind is "begin as you mean to go on".

This may seem like an aside, but I think it comes back around to your point:

While considering the nature and origin of morality (like we do ;-) ), one thing I came up with, is that "natural morality" -- that is, the cooperative impulses which we see not only in humans, but in a variety of other animals -- represents evolution's response to the Prisoner's Dilemma, iterated over many millions of years. Which is to say, the most basic layer of morality evolved in response to (indeed, dialogue with) the competing advantages of cooperation versus betrayal. Those moral instincts and traditions¹ represent evolution's recommendations for "success" on the evolutionary scale, including stuff like K/r tradeoffs (parent versus child), kin/group selection, dealing with cheaters, and whatever other epiphenomena² have been reliable enough to select against.

Musing on your "outcomes matter": The outcome is one event, and the actions taken to reach it are events, and from evolution's (or even history's) perspective, they all get muddled together. Extended goals as such are a relatively new thing, mediated by our enhanced cognition. But they offer a new set of moral choices; consider the quip that "the history of capitalism is a tale of finding new externalities to exploit". Often those externalities involve other people's welfare, and that leads back to basic morality.

Note that for those who would seek a well-defined list of "the moral laws of the universe", my position is a counsel of despair. This ongoing need to choose our paths, the tension between the fractal patterns that we summarize as Good and Evil -- that's what this universe has to offer. And the moral choices we make, determine what we, and humanity, will become.

¹because memetic evolution has also taken up the torch.
² Evolution doesn't care about levels of causality, only about what's actually happening.

#24 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2018, 10:53 AM:

TomB @ 20:

I struggle with The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas all the time, even if not explicitly so, which, I suppose, is the point of the story. It's all well and good to pretend that we'd be good and walk away, but we're in Omelas now. Worse, walking away doesn't actually stop the suffering. Even worse, I can't walk away. The best I can do is try to be clear-eyed about what's happening, and work from within to make a change.

Lydy Nickerson @ 21 and abi @ 22:

The means versus ends distinction reminds me very strongly of the ongoing Christian debate of faith versus works. I sort of want to expand on that thought and why I see the parallels, but, as a non-Christian, I also don't want to inadvertently tread on people's toes, so I'll let that thought percolate a bit more.

#25 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2018, 04:31 PM:

Generally: I very much enjoyed this angle on Omelas, by PH Lee: A House by the Sea.

KeithS @24:

What faith vs. works is for me is being vs. doing. Both in the sense that if your faith doesn't naturally lead to good works, it's really just a nice intellectual diversion (in my flavor of the Christian context, anyway). And also that if you do good works, they can have a transformative effect on you as a person. If you're already headed in the faithward direction, good works speed you on your way. If not, they're not necessarily going to lead to any particular set of beliefs, but they strengthen your connectedness with the people around you, and cause you to think in new, more compassionate ways.

#26 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2018, 06:56 PM:

abi #25: I think that "good works" falls under what I called "natural morality" above, something we can see happening in ancient times and (AIUI), occasionally in the nonhuman realm. The idea of faith as a virtue... well, even in pagan Greece there were trials for atheism (Socrates comes to mind), but I'd still say it's a later development than good works, and distinctively human.

#27 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2018, 12:30 AM:

I read a thing* about orthodoxy vs orthopraxy a while ago, and it stuck with me. There's also the idea (baffling to a couple convert friends) in Judaism that you do the cultural/practice things and they lead you to the spiritual/belief things rather than the other way around. So you can be a Jewish atheist in a way you can't generally be a Methodist atheist.

Argh. I need one particular friend to talk to about this; we have developed a good habit of handing ideas back and forth and figuring them out. It doesn't work with only my brain.

*one of those Tumblr-via-Facebook screenshots, probably

#28 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2018, 03:33 AM:

Dave @26:

It's chancy at best to map terms like religion, faith, or atheism across time or tradition. Socrates and Dawkins would not agree on what atheism is. Even in shorter timescales, what it means to be a Dutch Catholic has changed enormously in the lifetimes of many of my fellow parishioners.

(Heck, Dawkins and Myers don't agree on the definition of atheism today, right now.)

If you haven't read Andrew Brown's sermon, I'd recommend that you do. It's got some interesting takes on an abstract definition of religion as a community of mimetic convergence and furtherance.

Diatryma @27:

Yes! Orthodoxy vs orthopraxy is a good phrasing. (And I would say that you can be a Catholic atheist, or a Quaker atheist. I don't know about Methodism, but some of these communities come with a sufficiently distinctive worldview and approach to morality.)

#29 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2018, 08:12 AM:

abi #28: Fair enough, especially as for much of human history, such terms are also bound up in the local power structures. I've just glanced through Brown's sermon, and like it quite a lot. As a fellow depressive, I fully agree with his comments on the necessary but dangerous role of self-deception in everyday life.

I will point out that much of his difficulty in "defining religion" goes away if you just allow that it's not just one immutable thing. (You may remember my old remarks about Promethean versus Jovian religion.) Some might imagine that the word "religion" is like "rock", a label for a preexisting object which doesn't care what we call it. I submit that it's more like "corporation" -- a name for a social/political construct of several respective times, and one with significant political implications. In each new era and region, the word gets silently redefined in terms of the current society.

Dawkins and Socrates wouldn't initially agree what atheism was, but I strongly suspect that if they could actually discuss it, they'd rapidly converge on at least recognizing atheism as a challenge to the use of religion for social control. Similarly, I'll just respond to his "The sociologist may say that the religious ecstasy is simply an identification with the group and its aims..." with "but then the neurologist and the mystic would both smack him". ;-)

Gotta go do pre-work stuff, but I'll probably be back poking at this stuff later.

#30 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2018, 10:15 AM:

Diatryma @27 and abi @28 I took an online course a few months ago that used the book You Are What You Love, by James K.A. Smith. I didn't really like the book, which was frustrating to me because I agree deeply with his main thesis, which is that you are shaped in ways below consciousness by the things you love which are therefore the things you spend time with. He was talking not so much about actions but about liturgical prayer and the ways in which the structure and repetition are of value even if we aren't engaging with mindful attention all the time. I like the premise, but his examples and discussion didn't always work for me. One of the reasons, I think, is that he was working hard to sell the value of liturgical church services to evangelical Christians who view them as suspiciously Romish. Whereas, as an Episcopalian turned Catholic with a longstanding if somewhat intermittent practice of the Daily Office, I kept reading defenses of liturgy and thinking, yes, and your point is?

But I keep circling back to the way our habits shape us below consciousness. My personal take, based on reading about cognitive psychology, habit formation, etc., is that our point of conscious leverage is in setting the stage - in making choices and preparing for them ahead of time, in deciding what habits we want to form. In the moment we can intervene consciously, but more often we take the path laid out before us.

A book on a similar subject that resonated more for me is Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life, by Tish Harrison Warren.

#31 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2018, 11:12 AM:

Diatryma @27:
I considered formally converting to judaism after I got married, but ultimately decided against it because I don't believe in god, and it would have felt like a false promise. Years later, I was chatting with my rabbi friend about that, and she said "Oh, atheism isn't a problem! Zero gods or one god is fine; it's only two or more we have a problem with."

I've been telling that story for years but I only recently started to understand it - there was a twitter thread a while back where someone remarked that judaism focuses more on what you do than what you believe, and then it clicked for me, how jewish atheism would work. I can get behind tikkun olam without having to "believe" any particular thing. (But for the same reason, it also doesn't seem particularly important whether I convert or not.)

#32 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2018, 03:33 PM:

Yeah, I thought about 'Catholic atheism' and decided that it worked. In the world I know today, there are religions that people convert to and religions that people don't, and the divide is mostly based on how much ritual goes on. I have friends who have converted to Catholicism, Judaism, no Quakers but I could see it... and friends who start going to the Lutheran church because they like the service, or go to the other Lutheran church because it has the best music, or the Methodist church because that's where all the people they know in town go. The former is identity, formed around the rituals and practices; the latter isn't.

But I am surrounded by largely secular people, save those converts, and I don't see a lot of evangelical anything around. And I know several people who were raised secular Jewish. I don't know what conclusions I could draw based on a different community or a different me from years ago.

#33 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2018, 10:01 PM:

Diatryma #32: Back when I was going to Neo-Pagan events, you could often tell what religion someone had converted from by their attitude toward their new religion. Judaism and Catholicism especially left their marks on people long after they'd officially abandoned them.

#34 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2018, 11:08 PM:

Dave 33: Yep! Many nods here.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the worst blowup in the Neo-Pagan world in the 80s (the "Samhain Letter Controversy") was led, on the bad side, by people from an area where white evangelical Christianity is a strong presence.

To put in my own oar, I have never had faith. I tried. It never worked for me. So I went and found* a religion (and a subsection of that religion) that didn't require any. Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will, and beliefs are part of consciousness. I'm a skeptic and pretty rational outside of circle, but in the circle-casting process I change to believe whatever I need to in order to do what I need to do (don't be alarmed by this; the decision about what to do is made outside circle).

There are rules to be followed (the Rede** being the biggest one) and act-as-if "beliefs" (the threefold law). But if I tell you that the Goddess is a metaphor for the power and glory of the physical universe, anthropomorphized to be something humans can relate to more effectively, there's no one to call me a heretic and no one with the authority to cast me out or say I'm not Wiccan. (Some may try. I will laugh.)

Inside circle, the Goddess is a person to whom I talk (but listen more).

For me, it's ALL about the works. Example: I pray every day to Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles. My relationship with Him deepened immeasurably when I realized that I ought to (and wanted to) be not just His supplicant, but his agent in the world. I discovered this by working on the Access team at a Worldcon. I now look for opportunities to be the no-hands-but-ours that takes away barriers keeping others from what they need, want, and/or deserve.

*And, with regard to the subsection, partially founded
**"An it harm none, do as Thou wilt." (The "Thou" referred to here is the divine part of every person.)

#35 ::: Anne Sheller ::: (view all by) ::: November 21, 2018, 11:37 PM:

It's certainly possible to be a Catholic agnostic.

#36 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 01:09 AM:

Xopher Halftongue @34: I pray every day to Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles. My relationship with Him deepened immeasurably when I realized that I ought to (and wanted to) be not just His supplicant, but his agent in the world. I discovered this by working on the Access team at a Worldcon. I now look for opportunities to be the no-hands-but-ours that takes away barriers keeping others from what they need, want, and/or deserve.

I like this a lot.

blowup in the Neo-Pagan world in the 80s (the "Samhain Letter Controversy")

Do you have a pointer? A quick Google provides no obvious illumination.

#37 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 03:38 AM:

Jacque 36: There are hints of it here, though Aiden's writeup downplays the severity of the blowup over Judy's changes, and never mentions the Samhain Letter at all. Keep in mind that I am not a Gardnerian initiate (partially because when I was a seeker I heard about all this crap going down), and any bits of it that are oathbound* I wouldn't know about; this is what I picked up from non-oathbound conversations.

Saying "Unfortunately, a faction among the stricter Gardnerians refused to acknowledge this distinction" is like saying "Unfortunately, Mr. Trump occasionally bent the truth." The fundmentalist Gardnerians in Louisville, Kentucky, known colloquially as the "Hard-Gards," issued scathing denunciations. IIRC the Samhain Letter said, among other things, that Gardnerian initiations not only should not be done, not only were invalid, but would not work magically if either party were homosexual. (This came as a shock to some gay men—Gardnerian High Priests!—who had been on the "don't change anything" side.) They also said things like "the window of inspiration closed at the death of Gerald Gardner," meaning all rituals had to be read out of a proper Gardnerian Book of Shadows, handed down all the way from Gerald Himself, or they were invalid and should not be done. No new ritual could be created.

My favorite, though, is that they said "Just as Jesus was not a Christian, Gerald Gardner was not a Gardnerian." This shows how they were thinking, and where those thought patterns came from. Things that Gerald did himself were not proper for good Gardnerians to do; of course he did a lot of things that were not proper for ANYONE to do, like making up "ancient writings" in cheesy fake-archaic language whenever he wanted to exert more control over someone.

In all, the Hard-Gards were, and AFAIK still are, the Wiccan equivalent of the DAR. They thought they were superior to all other Wiccans, especially eclectics like me with no "lineage" and no access to a "real" Book of Shadows.

*"How many Gardnerians does it take to change a lightbulb?" "I can't tell you, it's a Third-Degree Mystery."

#38 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 03:40 AM:

It was all uglier than the previous post makes it seem.

#39 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 06:02 AM:

Anne @35 --

That seems like the right stance to take towards Catholic agnostics:

It seems *possible* they could exist, and I cannot *disprove* their existence, even if none of the alleged proofs of their existence succeeds.

So if some people take comfort from the thought that there are Catholic agnostics, then I say live and let live.

#40 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 06:24 AM:

Oh dear. It all sounds very political. (And by "political," I mean "human.")

"...something, something...and all Pagandom was plunged into war...," eh?

I wonder, these kinds of blow-ups seem to have such a consistent structure, has anybody ever come up with a flow-chart? It seems like one could make up a whole sub-branch of sociology out of that study.

#41 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 12:40 PM:

Abi, like the oriental star you herald new dawn. It's good to see you refulgent above the surface again.

I've spent a little time meditating on 11 November. The grandfather of a friend of mine served in France as an artilleryman, in a nice, pleasant place called the Somme valley; he returned with an MC. My friend's great-uncle also served; he did not come back. His memory has been carried on down the generations by the passing down of his name.

The First World War (or third or fourth, depending on where you want to start your count) was an extraordinary conflict. At its end four empires lay broken. The unquestioned assumptions of the previous century were being seriously questioned (by my friend's grandfather, among other people). That rabbit can't be hidden any longer.

It was an epochal war, and we are still living with its effects. We have an international community of sorts. The Japanese prime minister was at Versailles. So was Ras Tafari. We have moved on from there. There are times when I wonder if we have regressed to that stage of international relations. I think that the world saw that particular elephant at Verdun, the Somme, and half a dozen other battles of the Great War. I do not think any person of sense wants to see it again.

#42 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 04:36 PM:

Jacque 40: Oh dear. It all sounds very political. (And by "political," I mean "human.")

Yeah, I've often thought that politics should be defined as "the way humans interact."

"...something, something...and all Pagandom was plunged into war...," eh?

Well, it was only really bad if you were Gardnerian, because people forced you to take sides. The bulk of the Pagan community was involved only by caring about the pain of our Gardnerian friends, which was bad enough, but it wasn't like Pagan gatherings were split into armed camps or anything. Much as the Hard-Gards like to pretend otherwise, Gardnerians are a minority even among Wiccans.

I wonder, these kinds of blow-ups seem to have such a consistent structure, has anybody ever come up with a flow-chart? It seems like one could make up a whole sub-branch of sociology out of that study.

I bet someone has. If you find one, let me know!

#43 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 05:37 PM:

It appears to me to involve high-up members of an organization putting the "good" of the organization ahead of the good of its members, and putting their own interests ahead of those of the organization or the principles of the founder(s). This includes a self-important belief that *they* know what's best, and are the best thing that could happen to the organization, so anything that threatens their position, premises, or prejudices is a threat to the group.

#44 ::: SunflowerP ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 06:45 PM:

Xopher @37: Thank you. I already knew a fair bit about it, so the considerable additional information you provided, in your own person and via AK's article, was for me much more than just 'hints of it'. (I might have once known and since forgotten some of it.)

To indirectly illustrate jut how vicious and ugly it was, I know of (online - but I extrapolate that there must be meatlife counterparts) venues in which, to this day, over three decades later, mentioning Proteans is a rules violation, because that's the only reliable way for the moderators to prevent a conflagration.

IOW, Jacque @40, yes, Witch Wars and Fan Wars are indeed that similar - unsurprisingly when you realize they both emerged fro the same cultural Soup. Or, just because the communities are filled with humans.

#45 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 08:18 PM:

Evan @31: t's only two or more we have a problem with.

So this reminds me of a question that nags at me: Do the Ten Commandments imply that there are more than one god? "Put no others before Me."

#46 ::: David Goldfarb ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 08:26 PM:

@Jacque: I think the earlier parts of the Bible are obviously henotheist (there are many gods, but ours is best) rather than monotheist (only our god really exists, all others are fakes or deceptive demons).

#47 ::: estelendur ::: (view all by) ::: November 22, 2018, 10:07 PM:

Diatryma @27: I am a Jewish convert who is doing the cultural/practice things as a way of getting to the spiritual/belief things! :) I was very worried about whether this was okay, but when I talked to my rabbi about it, he said that as long as I was a respectful atheist, there should be no problem.

OtterB @30: I have this instant requested Liturgy of the Ordinary from my local library! I am intrigued.

Dave Harmon @33: There is a particular internet community that I hang around in which a lot of the members are Jewish with a complicated or hostile relationship with the religious parts. It does seem to leave a deep mark.

Xopher Halftongue @34: That is really interesting. I have never had faith and I found that in Pagan settings I was unable to change to believe what I needed in order to do what I needed to do, but in Judaism I am able to do that. Strange how minds work. It's encouraging to hear someone else's experiences rhyme with mine. And I really like that note about being Ganesha's agent in the world.

#48 ::: Lori Coulson ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2018, 01:42 PM:

Jacque @ 45:

Oh, yeah, and it's prevalent through a good deal of the Old Testament especially the Psalms: "...you are king over all the gods..." for example.

And then there's the bit about "Wisdom" and how SHE has always been with God, and the writer asks God to send her to him, for a man without wisdom is of little account.

#49 ::: Lenora Rose ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2018, 05:10 PM:

Lori Coulson: It's most definitely a personal twist on the theme, but I always found myself equating Sophia with the Holy Spirit -- partly because one religious discussion had people describing the Holy Spirit as being like (or just being) the voice of inspiration, and the voice which makes us stand up and speak out when we need, or act right when we see another in pain we can help. (They also played a bit with the thought it was the feminine side of God, but not too much, because of the mostly-Mennonite and rather traditionalist audience, and I latched on to that aspect, too. Of course, my current church starts the Jesus prayer as "Our Mother and Father, who art in Heaven..." so I don't exactly feel alone at this point.)

#50 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2018, 10:07 PM:

This is interesting, because my vague impression is that current Christian theology, at least, contends that capital-G God is the only god, and if you subscribe to others, they're just Satan in disguise.

Speaking for myself personally, if there is a spiritual realm, I see no reason why its inhabitants would be any less complex and diverse than life in the physical realm.

#51 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2018, 03:30 AM:

Xopher @34, as you probably know, your explanation of in the circle/out of the circle has been tremendously valuable to me.

It ties into my own experience that faith as a feeling is transient and uncontrollable. If you go by the gut (or the intellect), sometimes I'm a theist, and sometimes I'm not.

But the practice of faith, which includes both participation in rituals and private things like prayer, is a choice, something I'm in control of. It's the gift my nonbelieving self gives to my faithful self, a door I leave open even when I'm not walking through it just then. (And in turn, my faithful self leaves gifts of peace and the energy for compassion when she's on sabbatical.)

In that, it's not unlike love...in our 25+ years of marriage, there have been plenty of times when Martin and I have been on the outs. Not feeling the love, you know? But love is also about keeping that door open so that when you want to walk through it, it's possible.

I have lately begun to treat hope in the same way...as a choice as well as a feeling. Trying to lay the groundwork for the kind of future I want to have happen, even when I doubt so strongly that it can come about.

#52 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2018, 03:51 AM:

So on the subject of other gods...let me go back to my comments about historical atheism, because we're there again. The nature of belief/nonbelief was very different across the various cultures of the ancient world, and very different from modern ideas on the subject.

My understanding, reading the text, is that many of the tribes and communities in the ancient Middle East were basically trying on gods for size, hoping that worshiping this one or that one would help them not die in the next raid or dry season. Stuff like the golden calf was basically hedging their bets in case the god of Abraham let them down.

What the first commandment said is go big or go home. God wanting all-in commitment, no backup gods, no fallback deities. A hard thing for a community to commit to in that chancy, difficult world.

In the modern Christian theology that I subscribe to (because generalities aren't actually productive here), the principle applies, but gets applied to things we don't generally name as gods. Because the three peoples of the Book all pretty much made that commitment to only refer to one entity as God, but people are still people.

So the question is, what are you turning to for comfort and sustenance? What will you drop everything to pursue? Are you letting something take over your life, determine your values? Plenty of people treat money or worldly success as their god. (Not just the literal prosperity gospel, but the you must have failed somehow if you're poor, sick, or vulnerable culture.) How about the pursuit of romantic and sexual love? Or the desire for respectability, so that people cover up the most horrific abuses because What Would The Neighbors Think? Is the lure of the new and the shiny a god, in a world that's consuming itself to death?

It's a question to ask, an axis of evaluation, a call to self-improvement. Dismissing it as "demons" is another way to dodge that question.

#53 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2018, 03:54 AM:

If everyone could just have hope, it would be a better world already.

#54 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2018, 03:57 AM:

My point is, when you don't have hope, do hope. 'Cause the latter is under your control, but not the former.

#55 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2018, 10:10 AM:

abi #52: Thoroughly agreed, but I had to LOL at go big or go home.

Christianity had no hope of telling its recruits that all those other gods didn't exist, because belief Does Not Work That Way. So they instead recast them into saints and demons, "obviously" subordinate to T1TG. But the old gods are not so easily confined...

Plenty of people treat money or worldly success as their god. (Not just the literal prosperity gospel, but the you must have failed somehow if you're poor, sick, or vulnerable culture.)

Mammon, natch -- but I also remember a piece here about the modern cult of Fortuna. (Alas, I'm unable to find it just now.)

How about the pursuit of romantic and sexual love?

Aphrodite is eternal.

Or the desire for respectability, so that people cover up the most horrific abuses because What Would The Neighbors Think?

I'm stumped for a classical reference, but I'm pretty ignorant beyond the Greek/Roman and Norse pantheons. Possibly back to Fortuna.

Is the lure of the new and the shiny a god, in a world that's consuming itself to death?

Perhaps a fault of Hephaestus, who is arguably the lord of this age.

#56 ::: Yarrow ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2018, 01:28 PM:

Here's something I wrote to a friend almost twenty years ago, which captures my gut's take on religion as practice and hope as a choice: ... sometimes I wish I could just go cry in my beer instead of working on myself and my community and our allegedly magical relationship with alleged beings that I don't even know if they exist but they better because I love them.

My mind's take on it all is maybe calmer on the surface. The existence of phenomenal consciousness is so stunning, and at such right angles to what seem to me the best scientific explanations of the universe, that the existence of wider, deeper, more stunning consciousnesses seems — plausible? Plausible is not the right word. The existence of consciousness is a mystery. It points to the existence of other mysteries, if only as possibilities. So when I'm outside the circle, the memory of experiences inside the circle is something that affects my judgment of what is or might be real.

And what happens inside the circle both helps me choose hope, and urges on me the necessity of choosing hope. And my thinking self calculates that this hope is not doomed, because it remembers that as Xopher said at #34, "Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will", and as David Graeber says "Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them."

#57 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2018, 05:55 PM:

Sorry, I wasn't very clear. I am reluctant to say too much because it is not my story to tell. I had a conversation with someone who was doing good works but said they had no hope anymore. I felt that they still had hope, that hope was what you can have when you can't have expectations. And I feel that no matter how hopeless the situation, hope will make a difference, somehow.

#58 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2018, 12:00 AM:

There's a book by Linda Sue Park, I believe, called Keeping Score, which addresses hope and prayer in the context of practice. It's a favorite of mine because of that. It's a middle-grade or young YA book about baseball, the Korean War, PTSD, and such things.

#59 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2018, 01:04 AM:

abi @52: the principle applies, but gets applied to things we don't generally name as gods.

Oh now that's an interesting angle that never would have occurred to me. I (think I) see what you mean.

In a sense, the US stayed in Vietnam as long as it did, because no president wanted to be in the barrel the "first time" the US "lost a war." Is that the kind of thing you mean?

Is the lure of the new and the shiny a god, in a world that's consuming itself to death?

I think Capitalism definitely qualifies, if I understand your formulation. Or maybe "the invisible hand" that the capitalists bang on about. They certainly seem to have "faith" in it.

Heh. Now I'm pondering what god it would be that Facebook worships—optimization, maybe?

TomB @57: I feel that no matter how hopeless the situation, hope will make a difference, somehow.

In morale, if nothing else. And morale can make all the difference in the world. (As I get reminded every time I get sloppy in my self-care and nose-dive into a depression that makes it impossible to get anything done.)

A specific example for me: when I saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez post something about a "Green New Deal," and my heart lept. Yeah. Now there's something I can get behind.

Whatever else, these last two years have made it hard to visualize the kind of world I want to live in. Maybe because its possibility seemed to be steadily fading into the distance. But with that simple phrase, suddenly I had pictures in my brain again of a world I want to be a part of.

#60 ::: Evan ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2018, 11:46 PM:

I agree with David Goldfarb @46, the Hebrews in the early parts of the bible seem to have been henotheists. (Or monolatrists? I have the impression that there's a subtle difference between the two but I don't understand what it is, and I'm not sure which hits closer to the mark: but, basically, "there are many gods, and this is the one we worship.") A whole lot of my studies in the confirmation class I went to as a kid finally made sense to me when this was explained to me. "Only one god exists, and he's jealous of the other ones so you should kill people who worship them" never made any kind of sense.

If I recall correctly, the concept of monotheism as we understand it today was an innovation of the early diaspora.

#61 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2018, 03:13 PM:

Jacque @59: what FaceBook worships is clicks. That's what people measure by, both internally and externally (within the company, and within the general user population).

#62 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2018, 04:24 PM:

This seems pertinent, but I'm not quite smart enough to articulate why:

Using information security to explain why disinformation makes autocracies stronger and democracies weaker

Alongside financial transparency, the authors suggest that vigorous antitrust enforcement, possibly with reclassification of online services as public utilities, would help curb the deployment of ranking algorithms that elevate "engagement" over all else, leading to spirals that drive users to ever-more-extreme and unfounded views and communities [emphasis added]
#63 ::: Sarah E. ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2018, 04:43 PM:

KeithS @ #24:
It's all well and good to pretend that we'd be good and walk away, but we're in Omelas now. Worse, walking away doesn't actually stop the suffering.

Exactly. I’m afraid my reaction to every Omelas-type scenario is to think “Wait, *only* one kid has to suffer? So if a demon or somebody were to make me this offer in real life, and I had reason to believe they’d actually keep their side of the deal? Then refusing it would be making a *different* deal, one where I condemned a much larger group of children to suffer, just so I could feel good about my own morality.”

#64 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2018, 01:40 AM:

Using David's nomenclature, I can think of one deity whose devotees have multiplied in the internet age.

It's Nike, the goddess of victory. The people in threads and on Twitter who just. have. to. win. the argument. People for whom internet discussion (and indeed all discussion, for fanatics) is not about correctness, but victory. They have always been with us, but it's a cult with a burgeoning following now.

(If I have a superpower as a moderator, it's listening to how my skin starts to itch when a Nikeian takes a deep breath and begins to mouth the opening syllables of her rituals.)

#65 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2018, 07:12 AM:

abi @64 (If I have a superpower as a moderator, it's listening to how my skin starts to itch when a Nikeian takes a deep breath and begins to mouth the opening syllables of her rituals.)

I enjoy that description of your moderator superpower, but I particularly like the concept of recognizing when someone is beginning the ritual to another god. I have found an increasing ability to deconstruct commercials this way in just a few words (radio commercials, mainly, as I watch very little TV). The rituals to the gods of materialism can often be recognized by phrases like "you deserve this" or "he/she will love you for this gift."

#66 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2018, 08:53 AM:

This popped up today and might be of interest to you--it was to me: On Civic Atheism.

@abi: What's the difference between a Nikean and a Sophist? I can't verbalize it, but it's there.

#67 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2018, 04:01 PM:

For a worshiper of Nike, sophistry is a tactic. Victory is an objective.

#68 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 28, 2018, 05:55 PM:

abi #64: Hmmm! That is an excellent point -- I still wouldn't say she's the only god who's gained power in modern times, but I can certainly believe it's her followers who are getting in your face! (And everyone else's....)

I suspect that's a mix of generally higher stakes in many modern conflicts (not just weaponry, but the effects of a victory), and the ongoing "systemization" (or technologization?) of conflicts. Machiavelli established "do what it takes to win" as a political strategy, and others have extended that to all sorts of individual conflicts and challenges. Advertising and marketing have gone over to this idea almost completely -- the idea of "tell them why we're better" has been completely replaced by doing "whatever it takes" to get people's attention and influence their decisions.

Of course, the moment someone says "by any means necessary", they're setting the table for atrocity. :-(

#69 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 29, 2018, 11:29 AM:

And funnily enough, when they say "by any means necessary", they never seem inclined to use Commander Sinclair's strategy.

#70 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: December 11, 2018, 08:47 PM:

John A. Arkansawyer @ 66 (I missed this first time through): ISTM that this is a less-contentious echo of Johnson's "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." (In view of current events, one recalls Bierce's observation that Johnson was insufficiently enlightened -- it's the first refuge, not the last.) It won't get quite as many people's backs up, but I'm not sure it shows a way forward.

#71 ::: Stefan S. ::: (view all by) ::: December 12, 2018, 07:28 AM:

Regarding the original post, and musing on ends and means., I also go to Le Guin. She said it slant in a much later story, a phrasing I think about very often: How you play is what you win.
Thanks for this space to speak, Abi, and to our hosts also. A hearth.

Welcome to Making Light's comment section. The moderators are Avram Grumer, Teresa & Patrick Nielsen Hayden, and Abi Sutherland. Abi is the moderator most frequently onsite. She's also the kindest. Teresa is the theoretician. Are you feeling lucky?

Comments containing more than seven URLs will be held for approval. If you want to comment on a thread that's been closed, please post to the most recent "Open Thread" discussion.

You can subscribe (via RSS) to this particular comment thread. (If this option is baffling, here's a quick introduction.)

Post a comment.
(Real e-mail addresses and URLs only, please.)

HTML Tags:
<strong>Strong</strong> = Strong
<em>Emphasized</em> = Emphasized
<a href="http://www.url.com">Linked text</a> = Linked text

Spelling reference:
Tolkien. Minuscule. Gandhi. Millennium. Delany. Embarrassment. Publishers Weekly. Occurrence. Asimov. Weird. Connoisseur. Accommodate. Hierarchy. Deity. Etiquette. Pharaoh. Teresa. Its. Macdonald. Nielsen Hayden. It's. Fluorosphere. Barack. More here.















(You must preview before posting.)

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.