Roid Rage Theology

I don’t see the point in arguing about the nature of God or the gods. I mean, in the sense of cool-headed theological contemplation I do see it, but if we’re all honest with ourselves, that’s not usually what happens. I mean the kind where I believe something about how many gods there are or aren’t, and I am so confident in my view that everyone who thinks something else seems like a moron – and I tell them as much, with much shield-clanging and posturing. It is the theology of teenage boys on steroids, and every religion seems to get a share of it.

One of the problems is that we’re not dealing with hard sciences here. None of us can definitively prove that there’s only one God and that one matches my particular description, or that there are many gods that all reflect one, or many that are many down to the bone, or gods of this type but not of that type, or no gods whatsoever.  That means that if you are not a great philosopher or theologian or rhetorician, as most of us aren’t, arguments in this subject are liable to run in this direction:

“Worship Thor!”

“He’s made up. He is totally not even the god of thunder.”

“Is too!”

“Nuh-uh.”

Which is all about useless. And worse, if the speakers’ enthusiasm for their subject prevents them from letting go of their unprovable point, it can spiral out this way:

“You are dirt stupid for worshipping a made-up god.”

You are the dumbest person ever and you should be drowned in a sack!”

“Threat! Threat! Oh, you are going to be sorry you said that, filthy heretic.

And so on until each person has decided that the other person is everything that is wrong with the universe throughout time and space. (I’m not exaggerating, and this doesn’t apply just to the Christians, the Muslims, the Atheists. Browse the internet, and see how many examples of this argument you can find! Make it a drinking game, because you’ll want to numb the pain.)

But there isn’t anything to prove in at the core. And even when what we’re really arguing about is religious practice and how it intersects with public life, many people really do prefer to “keep it pure” by focusing on “is not.” “Is too.”

Where I’m ultimately headed with this is toward “Christians, don’t push so hard,” but that may have to wait for a separate post.

Effects Stack

I’ve decided I’m going to come back to blogging with a bang.

GamerGate. There, you know where we are. Now we can proceed.

The aspect of the shitstorm that I’m going to focus on here is the one that reflects a mood in general culture, that of shouting matches over privilege. These often come down to someone trying to shut up a member of an oppressed minority by saying that after all, they too are oppressed in some way, so don’t they deserve just as much attention and concern?

Since GamerGate is currently the most visible form of this argument on the Web, with its cries of “But they mocked me in high school! They called me mad at university!” I had been thinking about it with gamer terms in mind. And just as I was going to sleep last night – of course – I understood where their understanding was going wrong in game terms.

They were forgetting that effects stack.

Let us suppose that life is, in fact, one great big role-playing game. First of all, congratulations! You’re a LARPer. Second, let us understand that as with most role-playing games, your choices on things like gender, race, and player class are going to come with various sets of advantages and disadvantages. So do your starting attributes and talents.

Let’s look at the bright side of this first. Say you’re a white, non-disabled, cisgendered, heterosexual male born into the middle class. Let’s call this character Bob. Bob gets a lot of good things right out of the gate. Unless he really botches his rolls on appearance or intelligence, he will usually get neutral responses or better out of NPCs. Unless he’s crazy drunk/high in public or grooms himself like a punk on meth, he will seldom get a second glance from law enforcement or anyone else whose job includes eliminating “likely threats.” He will probably go to decent schools, which will make it easier for him to go on to success later in life, whether through college or trade or the military or even sports. He will be more likely to afford all the pleasant perks of life, which ironically will sometimes also be cheaper for him.

It gets better! Because of all this access to training and tools and friendly help, Bob will level up quickly. That will help him move into positions of greater prestige, security, and/or money. Now, without giving up any of the advantages he had before, Bob will have even more advantages, because effects stack.  He will get even better reactions than he did before, possibly to the point of having crimes he commits actively overlooked or at least under-punished. He will be able to afford luxury items, and some necessities – ironically again – will become even cheaper to him than they were before. He will be able to hire people to do the parts of his daily life that he doesn’t like. He will have access to better health care to make sure he doesn’t lose his “non-disabled” perks.

Now we’re going to build our second character, Dave. He’s still white, non-disabled, cisgendered, heterosexual and male, but he comes from a poor family in the sticks. He didn’t roll anything impressive for looks or intelligence, and in fact, some of his interests are not shared by a lot of his peers. Because of these things, it’s absolutely true that he’s not going to have as easy a road as Bob. Not everyone reacts positively on meeting him, though he still gets more neutral responses than negative ones (except maybe during junior high, which sucks for all but about three people per class year regardless). He’s probably at a worse school, getting less prepared for the future. Even if he manages to get into Bob’s school, he has little social currency to spend there, so the benefit is still limited. He may eat poorly enough at home to have lasting effects on his health, and that’s not going to help his adult life any. He’s going to level up slower than Bob and may hit a limit as to what he can accomplish.

That’s pretty bad, right? That’s worthy of our compassion, isn’t it?

Yeah, but. Hold on to your seat, because we’ve only thrown one of many possible wrenches into Bob’s cheery storyline.

Just for laughs, let’s compare Susan, who is like Bob except cisfemale. She gets back the good school and a lot of social currency, but for her there are strings attached. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, feels they deserve a vote in how much Susan weighs, what clothes she puts on, and what makeup she wears. Oh, and she is all but required to pay for makeup, more expensive clothes and more of them, and will probably spend a fair portion of her life on expensive diet plans as she chases the dream of being the magic shape that will satisfy everyone. That puts her at risk for eating disorders, so every so often we’re going to have to roll against anorexia, bulimia, extreme weight yo-yoing, and so on. If she’s pretty and/or works her presentation well enough, she gets a lot of theoretically positive responses, but for virtually every cisfemale some of those will cross over into people being creepy, making unwanted physical contact, stalking, or even full verbal and/or physical assault. It is guaranteed; it is part of the feature pack for this gender. Despite all her extra expenses, she will actually make less than Bob if she does the same job Bob does. Some jobs will not welcome her at all; others will mysteriously fail to level her up even when she’s earned all the points.  There’s other advantages and disadvantages in there, but this is enough to get where we’re going.

At this point you might be tempted to think, yeah, Dave’s got problems, Susan’s got problems, that’s what I’m saying, isn’t it? We’ve all got problems, so it’s not fair for Susan to point hers out like they’re a priority, is it?

But that’s not what I’m saying.

Now let’s check in on Nancy. Nancy is like Dave except cisfemale. So she has all the strikes against her that Dave has when compared to Bob, and all the disadvantages that Susan has when compared to Bob. All in play at the same time. Effects stack.

What if we made Rick and Anne, cisgendered people of color? Even starting from middle-class or better, they get marked down on stranger response, and especially so in encounters with law enforcement. If they’re middle class and in Bob’s school, they still get looked at funny because they’re not the same as Bob. If they’re middle class and in Dave’s school, Dave’s friends are likely to see them as uppity and hostile unless their charismas are through the roof. Rick has to earn more points than Bob or Dave to level up, and Anne has that problem plus Susan’s problems with leveling, because effects stack. In fact, Anne has all of Rick’s race-connected problems plus all of Susan’s gender-connected problems. (Granted, this isn’t a pure exchange, because in this case Rick has some special baggage connected to the intersection of “color” and “male.” But then again, Anne has some special baggage connected to the intersection of “color” and “female.” But for the most part we’re looking at simple stacking; and you can also see from this that when an intersection of two problematic tags occurs, it is generally a change for the worse and not the better.)

Now what if Rick loses an arm in the war? What if Dave realizes he’s actually gay or trans female? Sad to say, positive effects are easier to get rid of than negative ones. Rick keeps all his “male of color” issues and gets to add all the limits of being disabled; he loses the perks of being able-bodied. Dave keeps his poor roots and quirkiness issues and adds the many, many problems that attend on being gay or transgender. He will lose many, if not all, of the perks he got from being a heterosexual cisman.

What if Dave, now Debbie, loses feeling in her legs? Effects stack.

So my point is not that we all have problems and so we’re free to dismiss each other’s cries for help with “I’m a victim too!” I’m saying that if, as has become a trend, you are a person with one or two strikes against you and a sense that you’re disrespected from both ends, then on one hand you do indeed have a genuine problem. On the other hand, you might benefit from some perspective. Think about the people who have your set of problems plus more problems. Think about how it feels to be told your problems don’t count, and consider whether the people further down the slope than you might not feel the same way when you do it to them. Think about whether it is more constructive for us all to fight amongst each other, or to work as a team to address all our grievances in a way that will balance the game properly.

Effects stack.

Mardi Gras

Tonight I prepare myself for the Great Defragging, 40 days of paying attention. Tomorrow, I will start to re-organize and simplify my life, stripping away what no longer fits and giving the opened space to God.

In practical terms, for me, this will mean getting back on the Weight Watchers wagon, and also committing at minimum to doing “the hours” for morning and night. (I will be making an honest effort to also do noon and compline, but I don’t want to get perfectionistic about it and crash myself.) Incidentally, if you’re interested in the Hours and are Anglican/Episcopalian, I strongly recommend St. Bede’s Breviary, which not only is available and highly customizable on the internet, but is now testing a good tablet and smartphone-friendly version.

Meanwhile, I am going to resume reading and thinking about At Home in the World by Margaret Guenther, a book about applying principles from monastic Rules of Life to one’s own life shy of actually joining a Third Order. My life is often full of little pokes in this direction: in fact they were a big factor in my being a Pagan priestess for so long. But having burned out on that particular function and changed houses, I’ve been slow to move this time. Having given myself a year to ripen in the basics, and the poke not having gone away, I am moving temerously into the interest in Rules and Hours that I suppressed last year.

Tonight, however! Tonight I go to church to gorge on pancakes. Let it not be said that Episcopalians don’t know how to debauch properly on Mardi Gras. *chuckles*

E-confession

I learned on facebook today that the Catholic Church has given the official seal of approval to an iPhone app on which you can track your sins, so as to have the list handy for confession.

I’m kind of jealous, honestly. Not that I even have an iPhone, but I love tracking and lists, and it seems to me that if you’re going to have the concept of regular confession, something like this is really going to be handy and useful. It seems to me like the kind of thing my home church (Episcopal) wouldn’t get around to doing, because although we technically have the concept of confession we’re much more laid back about it, at least at my particular parish.  (I expect it’s not just us, though, because of Eddie Izzard’s thoughts about confession in the Church of England.  “Forgive me, Father. I have committed many sins.” “Well, so have I! …Drink five Bloody Marys and you won’t remember.”)

To be honest, maybe it’s also partly because counter to the principle of grace unearned by works, there is still a part of me that misses Knowing the Rules.  Which is pretty darned comical coming from an ex-Wiccan, a religion in which the only universal rule is “An’ it harm none, do as you will.” (Which I have now learned is suspiciously like “Love God and do as you will,” not only in wording but also in deeper sentiment.) But there it is – I am consecrated to God, therefore I want to please him, and therefore I want a clear picture of what will please him. That bit is easier with smaller gods: you learn their favorite colors, flowers, and so on, make a little altar, offer what they like offered, and Bob is your uncle. While love sometimes develops between a god and a practitioner, it’s not uncommon for the relationship to be largely or even entirely contractual. (Devotion-oriented Pagans often complain about this, in fact, because there are so many people who treat the gods as nothing but contract workers. “I’ve never spoken to you or worshiped you, but I burned the pink candle, now give me a girlfriend.”)

It’s not like that with God. He doesn’t quite have favorite “things,” unless you count Israel. (Try to fit Israel on your home altar.)  His favorite “things” are virtues – but that means you have to understand which virtues he favors and how to correctly apply them. Except that instead of spinning my wheels thinking about it I’m supposed to be allowing the Holy Spirit to instruct me – and that’s in the parts of the “old law” that even apply to me as a Christian, which is a whole other hotbed of contention.

Yes, you would not be the first person to say I overthink this kind of thing. Neither was my priest.

Anyway – when I shared my envy of this app with a Buddhist friend, she thought it sounded depressing. And I’m not sure I can explain what’s changed for me that makes it not depressing. One of my own main sins has always been perfectionism, a particularly cruel form of pride that doesn’t even give you the fun of feeling superior.  So the realization, deep down in my soul, that no one – let alone myself – could live up to my standard, and that God knows that and still offers me grace, and that therefore it’s okay to recognize and admit where I’m weak or selfish, has been huge for me. And that, in some weird way, makes the idea of confession liberating rather than guilt-inducing.

So, there you go, Episcopal Church. Make us an app!

Faith and works

Apparently there is a good deal of controversy over whether good works are necessary to salvation, or if faith is sufficient.  I have heard from an Orthodox friend that she has been torn into by Protestants for the Orthodox belief in the importance of good works.  I know, myself, of Christians who not only feel that faith is enough in itself, but seem to actively despise several things that I would place under the heading of “good works.”

Then again, at the other extreme, I also know that some of the more liberal Christianities seem to almost take faith out of the game – it’s all right to treat not only miracles but God Himself as metaphor, as long as good works are done.

I’m new, so maybe I’m wrong about how obvious the answer is.  And it helps, I suppose, that I have the blessing of experiencing God as a person, which makes it awfully hard to regard Him as metaphorical.  Faith supported by experience is easier (just ask Thomas); being able to physically feel the settling-in of grace makes the importance of faith self-evident.

But it says in 1 John that faith without good works is dead.  My personal perspective on this is colored by the fact that I am a bhakti, someone whose path toward God is driven primarily by love.  I think that good works are not necessary to earn grace, but rather, that doing good works is evidence that grace is present. The presence of the Holy Spirit is meant to lift us toward holiness, and we are told repeatedly that holiness consists of loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Being human we are bound to continue in some errors, but if we are open to the Holy Spirit, we should find ourselves drawn to love both God and our neighbors more and more, and to express that love.  Conversely, if the evidence of good works is lacking, we might conclude that the Holy Spirit is being shut out – which would show a lack of faith, faith that is “dead.”

(This also explains why good works are not sufficient in themselves, as we tend to imagine or hope in secular life: there are plenty of motivations for doing good other than loving God, and we cannot expect God to gather to Himself those who do not love Him.  So faith opens us to grace, and good works express grace.  In faith we love God with all our hearts, and in good works we love our neighbors as ourselves.)

For myself, I also feel that whether or not faith was sufficient by itself, I would want to do what was pleasing to God – as it is abundantly clear that good works are – as an expression of my own love for God.  To accept eternal love and salvation and give back nothing but complacency is to be a spoiled brat.  It was an attitude that was annoying enough in Paganism, where some practitioners see their gods as little more than spell ingredients to be plugged in to get what one wants.  (I must add that there are also many Pagans who see this attitude as ridiculous and insulting and in defiance of the entire idea of religion.)  But when we are talking specifically about a God who descended into the flesh to suffer with us and for us, answering that sacrifice with the reverence of a rich teen who just got the Mercedes they thought they deserved for their birthday seems particularly awful.

Of course we can’t fix the world by ourselves, and we can’t give back God’s love in equal measure.  But that does not excuse us from making some attempt.

Long-distance running

There’s an episode of “King of the Hill” in which Bobby (perpetually underachieving son of main character Hank) takes up a young, hip form of Christianity.  His group relates to Jesus largely through tattoos and extreme sports.  At the end of the episode, Hank explains his reluctance toward this by pulling out a box of old trendy gismos Bobby has left behind when they weren’t cool anymore, saying, “I don’t want the Lord to end up in this box.”

When I find a new passion, I tend to feel a compulsion to glut myself with it.  I buy all the books, all the materials if such apply; I wolf it down in huge portions of time and effort.  I join organizations, take on jobs.  By the time I realize I’ve exceeded my real interest or the amount of energy I really have, I’m in way over my head.

I don’t want the Lord to end up in that box.  And I’m particularly concerned about doling out my energy wisely since I developed chronic insomnia two years ago.  I’m still in the process of putting my life and my priorities back together, and it’s teaching me to take things in one at a time and in measured steps.  In my spirituality especially, I want every step I take to have its maximum impact and to be sustainable for me in the long term.

So I’ve resisted the temptation to start reading up on monastic life, wedge myself into observing all the Hours, and engage in depth-charge studies of the Bible complete with maps, commentaries, and concordances.  I’m trying to pace myself.  When I feel like this makes me too lukewarm, I try to console myself that on the whole, a smile and a brush of the fingertips every day adds up to more than one bouquet of flowers followed by nothing for a month.

Right now, that means saying the Lord’s Prayer in the evening instead of trying to follow the Hours, and reading through the Bible once for general familiarity before I start combing through it like a graduate student.  (I’m using an amusing tool for that at biblestudytools.com, where you can set up a Bible reading plan and check off the passages you’ve read as you go.  Sometimes I read a few days’ worth at a time instead of one, but I don’t let myself gorge.  The site also has a lot of material for deeper studies, and more than a dozen translations, so I’m able to work with the NSRV rather than some random denomination’s pet variant.)

How do you find what is a sustainable amount of practice for you?  What are the cornerstones you make sure are in place first?

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