“Being a Spiritual Wallflower: How Humanistic Pagans can get off the wall and dance” by John Halstead

Even under the influence of the narcotic draught, of which songs of all primitive men and peoples speak, or with the potent coming of spring that penetrates all nature with joy, these Dionysian emotions awake, and as they grow in intensity everything subjective vanishes into complete self-forgetfulness. In the German Middle Ages, too, singing and dancing crowds, ever increasing in number, whirled themselves from place to place under this same Dionysian impulse. […] There are some who, from obtuseness or lack of experience, turn away from such phenomena as from “folk-diseases,” with contempt or pity born of consciousness of their own “healthy-mindedness.” But of course such poor wretches have no idea how corpselike and ghostly their so-called “healthy-mindedness” looks when the glowing life of the Dionysian revelers roars past them.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

Joining the Dance

Chaim Potok’s book, The Promise, tells the story a young rabbinical student, Reuven, in a New York Hasidic Jewish community after the second World War.  Rueven feels torn between the traditionalism of the Hasidics and his liberal academic studies.  He struggles to reinterpret the scriptures in a way that is relevant for the modern world without destroying the tradition which he loves.  He loves Judaism, and he even continues to observe the rituals, which have intrinsic value for him, even though he does not believe in the theology.

At one point, near the end of the book, Reuven and his professor father return from a Hasidic wedding of Reuven’s best friend.  Reuven laments the closed-mindedness of the Hasidics.  And then the father responds: “Can you see them listening with joy to the critical method? … Will new ideas enable them to go on singing an dancing?”  Reuven responds, “We cannot ignore the truth, father.”  And Reuven’s father replies, “No, we cannot ignore the truth.  At the same time, we cannot quite sing and dance as they do.”  Those words hit home for me.  At the time I was leaving the religion of my birth (Mormonism) and wondering how I would fill the spiritual gap left by my loss of faith … how I would dance again.  Reuven’s concludes, “That is the dilemma of our time, Reuven.”

Eventually, I was drawn to Paganism.  A large part of the reason that Paganism appealed to me is that Pagans can dance!  Both figuratively and literally.  At the same time, I was disturbed by the supernaturalism of a lot of Pagan discourse.  I was drawn to Pagan spirituality by its materialism — a romantic materialism perhaps, but a materialism nonetheless.  Following Starhawk, I understood Pagans to be those people who not believe in divinity, but see it, touch it, hear it, smell it, and taste it in every part of the world around them.  But the more interaction I had with Pagans, the more I noticed an otherworldliness in their discourse that resembled the monotheism I had left.

When I discovered Humanistic Paganism, I thought that I had found a path that could join the Dionysian revelry of Paganism without abandoning the Apollonian rationality of humanism.  But too often, I think, we Humanistic Pagans emphasize the “Humanistic” to the detriment of the “Paganism”.  Too often, it seems, we are humanists first, and Pagans only second.  This is reflected in the writing of this site, which tends more toward the analytical than the practical.  As DT Strain has recently written here:

“Many of we rationalists, Humanists, etc. who aim to approach naturalistic spirituality sit against the wall at the dance, talking with one another about the dancers out on the floor. We analyze their movements and critique their techniques. Then we speculate about the biological underpinnings of their enjoyment of the dance. We might even present studies on the neural correlates of dancing. We imagine that this discussion and knowledge somehow gets us closer to being good dancers or to sharing in that enjoyment. Then the lights come on, the party is over, and we go home completely failing to have ever danced or even understood what the experience of dance is like or how it really feels.”

I still think that Humanistic Paganism has this potential to balance the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses.  Here are a few ideas I have about how we might “get off the wall and dance”:

1.  Make ritual more poetic.

One way is by engaging in ritual that is more poetic.  Defining “poetry” can be challenging, but I find the wikipedia definition functional for present purposes: Poetry is an art “which uses the aesthetic qualities of language to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.”  I use poetic language to speak indirectly about those things that seem to slip from our grasp when we talk about them directly.  Poetry uses symbolic language to do this, and ritual is poetic action.

A lot of humanists avoid ritual altogether, due I think to a distrust of (Christian) liturgy.  While most Humanistic Pagans probably embrace ritual on some level, I think this embrace is sometime half-hearted — like the one-armed hugs that macho men give each other: close, but not too close.  A lot of Humanistic Pagan ritual is discursive, sometimes verbose and, at its worst, didactic.  The worst examples, I think, are “rituals” where the officiant gives a sermon or homily on the meaning of the Sabbat.  In these cases, the “ritual” takes the form of talking about an experience, rather than having an experience.

Part of the excessive wordiness of Humanistic Pagan ritual comes from a distrust of symbolism that is common to humanists. I have heard the complaint by some humanists that we should just say what we mean and then symbolic language would be unnecessary.  But I believe this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of symbol.  Most people would probably equate symbols with metaphors, but they are not the same.  The meaning of a metaphor is known, but a symbol carries with it a “surplus of meaning” (Ricouer) which cannot be conveyed through explanation.  A metaphor is a known quantity, but a symbol is practically inexhaustible.  And ritual uses symbolic words and actions to evoke this surplus of meaning.  Symbolic language is not representational language; it is evocative language. Poetry is evocative, rather than signifying.  It’s not supposed to mean anything; it’s supposed to evoke an experience, a mood, an emotion, or a memory.  As Archibold MacLeish writes, “A poem should not mean/But be.”

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds. […]

(Archibold MacLeish, “Ars Poetica”)

Ritual and poetry point to something that cannot be fully expressed in representational language.  Or rather, instead of pointing us to something, ritual and poetry invite us to experience something.  They create a space where that experience can happen.  The meaning of good poetry can never be exhausted by explanation for this reason.  And the same is true of ritual.

So when I invoke a deity in ritual, I am not signifying an idea that I have personified, i.e., Dionysos = wine.  I am, rather, evoking an experience, the experience of ecstasy, for example, in the same way art is intended to evoke an experience, an experience that transcends representational thinking.  Ritual isn’t about pretending the gods are real, any more than a painting of a tree is a pretend tree.  Ritual is art, and art is, I believe, one of the most human things that we do.  And it is partly for this reason that I feel justified in calling my Paganism “humanistic”.

If we can embrace this understanding of symbol, I think our rituals will become less wordy, more evocative, and potentially more likely to be transformative.  And we need not even write our own poetry in order to do this.  We have Schiller, Holderlin, Byron, Wordsworth, and Swinburne.  We have Mary Oliver, Rainer Marie Rilke, Adrienne Rich, Wendell Berry, and David Whyte, and so many others, whose words can resonate with our humanistic sensibilities and can be borrowed for our rituals.

2.  Seek group rituals.

Another way I think we can try to “get off the wall and dance” is to find other like-minded Pagans and have group rituals.  Being an introvert, this would be very challenging for me.  I feel anxiety even suggesting it.  But I believe there is an experience which can be had in groups which is very difficult to reproduce by one’s self.  Our small numbers make solitary practice the norm for most Humanistic Pagans.  And the result, I think, is that our experience of ritual is different from that of many Pagans who worship more in groups.

Alan Watts defines “worship” as the realization of unity with God/Reality “through corporate self-forgetfulness” (emphasis added).  Obviously there is such a thing as private, individual worship.  But in some ways, group worship carries with it greater possibilities for self-transcendence.  There is a reason that the Dionysian bacchantes were always found in a group.  Most of a humanistic persuasion probably have a higher than average level of distrust of groups.  But it may be our fear of group-think that stands in the way of those experiences which have little to do with rationality.

3.  Engage in devotional practice.

I used the word “worship” above.  “Worship” is itself a problematic term for many humanists.  It often refers to an act of religious devotion, and devotional practice that is not usually found (or recognized) in humanistic contexts.  Some might even suggest that a humanistic practice is actually defined by its non-devotional nature.

The word “devotion” derives from the same root as the word “vow”, which implies a kind of giving of oneself.  Devotion also implies a kind of love for an “other”.  And love, I think, can be an effective means of ego-transcendence.  But what are we to love?  Theodore Parker wrote of the Unitarians of his day, “ceasing to fear ‘the great and dreadful God’, they had not quite learned to love the … Universe.”  The same might be said of Humanistic Pagans today.  The question for us is whether can we develop a devotional practice in relation to an impersonal Nature or universe.

While devotional practice usually corresponds with notions of a personal deity, personification is not necessary.  Evelyn Underhill defines worship in terms that include the impersonal.  Worship, she writes, is

“the absolute acknowledgment of all that lies beyond us—the glory that fills heaven and earth. It is the response that conscious beings make to their Creator, to the Eternal Reality from which they came forth; to God, however they may think of Him or recognize Him, and whether He be realized through religion, through nature, through history, through science, art, or human life and character.”

One need only remove the references to “God” and “Creator” for this statement to apply to a humanistic context: worship is the acknowledgement of what lies beyond us, a response of conscious beings to reality, however they think of it and however it is realized.  Thus, worship is, at its essence, a response to an experience of otherness which transcends the self to one degree or another.  It is a response to the feeling of awe, something which is probably familiar to most Humanistic Pagans.

But devotional worship is a specific kind of response.  “Worship” is related to the word “veneration”, but it is also related to the word “adoration”.  Veneration is a recognition of greatness or immensity in the object of veneration, while adoration is more akin to what we call “love”.  Devotional worship includes both of these elements.  While the forms of devotional worship may be alien to many Humanistic Pagans, I think many of us may already be practicing devotionalism in spirit.

“Pythagoreans’ Hymn to the Rising Sun” by Fedor Andreevich Bronnikov

The question then is whether we can translate devotional practices into a humanistic context.  In practical terms, devotionalism often takes the form of some form of offerings: of praise, of things (like foodstuffs or libations), of vows, and ultimately the offering of one’s self.  In a naturalistic context, these are not “sacrifices” or even “offerings” in the sense in which many polytheists use the term.  These are not gifts given in the hopes of receiving divine favor or receiving something in return.  They are expressions of devotion, of love.  Underhill writes, “Perhaps the most significant development in human religion has been the movement of the idea of sacrifice from propitiation to love.”

I think anything we do, in fact everything we do, could be an offering of love . . . to life or to the universe.  Evelyn Underhill writes that worship can include all forms of human activity.  Worship, she says,

“is an instinct that finds expression not only in our devotional, but also in our aesthetic life.  The inspiration of the painter, the musician and the poet, and often that of the scientist and explorer too, contains a genuine element of worship.  All that is best of these great human activities is not done for our own sakes; it points right away from us, to something we humbly seek and half-ignorantly adore.  It is offered at the shrine of a beauty or a wisdom that lies beyond the world.”

And eventually, we will offer our very lives back to nature.  But in the meantime, we an also express this ritually, in the form of other more traditional offerings, like verbal praise or liquid libations.

I admit, I’m not sure exactly what all of this looks like.  But I like to envision Humanistic Pagans engaging in poetic ritual, and engaging in ritual together, as an expression of our love for life and the universe.

The Author

John Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, Jungian psychology, ecopsychology, theopoetics, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis). He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Onward at Pagan Square. He is also the author of the website Neo-Paganism.com. John currently serves at the Managing Editor here at HumanisticPaganism.com.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

10 Comments on ““Being a Spiritual Wallflower: How Humanistic Pagans can get off the wall and dance” by John Halstead

  1. Simply desire to say your article is as astonishing.

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  2. This is why I describe myself as a pan theistic atheist…to me pagan gods represent archetypes of human behavior that we want to emulate or avoid. I always say, in the beginning man created god in his own image…

    As a pagan I can have a devotional practice that let’s me explore my humanness on a grander scale.

    While some pagans feel you have to believe the gods are “real”…there are more pagan atheists than you might imagine.

    I travel in a number of large communities and have heard many of the thoughts you expressed above.

    Great article…I have no conflict with my pagan atheism…and I still get to dance

  3. Only in the last year or so have I been engaging in group ritual, and in part designing it. It’s made all the difference. Part of the reason I haven’t been writing for you as much, I’ve been busy with things local. It’s been worth it. Maybe some (more) articles on ritual design from a HP perspective, and how you make the compromises inherent in any group activity.

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