Sunday, January 04, 2009

Review: Living with Honour: A Pagan Ethics

Emma Restall Orr is one of the leading figures of British Druidry, and her book Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics may be seen as an attempt for formalize the vaguely expressed ethical precepts ("If it harm none," etc.) that characterize contemporary Paganism(s).

Orr herself admits that "Paganism can appear fragmented " but that its diversity of belief and approach "is not always helpful those trying to grasp comprehension from the outside" (11). (I think she means, "Comprehend it from the outside.)

As have a number of other Pagan writers, she feels moved to act partly by social pressures. In order for Pagans and their concerns (e.g., "appropriate care of ancient monuments and artefacts"), "it is useful to be able to stand with one voice before the benches of a nation's authority" (11).

She wants to locate her ethics in nature. This "nature" is primarily planetary as opposed to cosmic—and she makes an argument about hurricanes and tsunamis that I would agree with completely: "The *Pagan acceptance of nature's destructive power is not about resignation, but reverence." You can have a relationship with planetary nature, but it is not all about you.

Asterisk-Pagan is Orr's special spelling for a Paganism with "a devotional reverence for nature" (35), and it is essentially countercultural and antinominan, mixed with a heavy dose of romantic tribalism.

But the more I read Living with Honour, the more I became aware of two huge omissions. One is Pagan philosophy. Orr knows that she does not want to return to a bloody, heroic duel-fighting "death before dishonor" type of tribal culture, as appealing as it looks from a distance of 2,500 years. So the book is not really rooted in the Northern European Iron Age cultures, despite a couple of nods in that direction.

Yet she almost completely ignores centuries of Pagan thought on ethics and philosophy from the Greco-Roman tradition!

The Stoics get a paragraph or two, and Epicurus one sentence that demonstrates the common modern misunderstanding of his teaching. The rest of the time, the reader is fed bits of the usual grumpy, depressed, and misogynistic 18th-20th-century gang: Schopenhauer, Hegel, Nietszche. (I will make an exception for Emmanual Lévinas, whose work has informed some other contemporary Pagan thought as well.)

The ancient philosophers ranged from the hardest of "hard polytheists" to skeptical materialists like Epicurus to the "honor the gods and do your duty" attitude of the Roman Stoics. And they had a great deal to say about living ethically in friendship, in marriage, and in civic life--even when (as under the worst emperors) one was caught up in a corrupt governmental system.

Why leave them out in favor of Schopenhauer, Martin Buber, or A.J. Ayer?

By contrast, Orr's book says much about cosmos and "the Other" in an abstract sense, but neglects the polis—the world of civic and social relationships. That is the second omission.

It may be that Orr finds participatory politics distasteful--"American democracy is acknowledged as a farce," she proclaims (6)--and would rather limit her wants and watch badgers. (Doing so would be Epicurean in the truer sense.) She admits to a fondness for philosophical anarchism.

But by neglecting the "political" (in the broadest sense of life in community) part of life, she has nothing to say on issues of rights and responsibilities, on how to be an engaged and "political" citizen.

Indeed, she rejects "any idea of duty" (323). If I ever have to teach another 8 a.m. lecture class but would rather sleep, I will remember that I have no duty to the university or to my students. I can just send them a group email and tell them to read the book on their own.

When Pagans (and *Pagans) come before "the benches of nation's authority," we need to make a simple case. Although a tiny religious minority, we will pull our weight. We do not ask for to be excused for our specialness, with sharia courts and kicking everyone else out of the public swimming pool.

Unlike fundamentalists of various sorts, we do not fear academic learning--Pagans invented the academy. And democracy. And Western philosophy.

Many of us are willing to take up arms for our nation, and we support our warriors. In all social realms, we are here, and we participate.

Thus, while I find much to like in Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics--I do enjoy seeing intelligent writers wrestle with the issue of just what "nature religion" is--I cannot help but see it as crippled by its rejection of still-relevent Pagan ethical traditions.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Book Posts in the Works

I am spread a little thin these days, and the below-zero (F.) weather the last few days threw some complications my way too.

Two book reviews are in the works. Here are the previews:

Stewart Farrar: Writer On A Broomstick, The Biography of Stewart Farrar by Elizabeth Guerra. Workmanlike biography of one of the key Wiccan figures of the late 20th century.

Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics by Emma Restall Orr, noted British Druid. I am part-way through it and thus far under-whelmed, but I will complete it and write a proper review.

• Meanwhile, if you are a university library (or rich), consider the Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, edited by Jim Lewis and Murph Pizza. Yes, that's the price. If you thought that American reference books were expensive, consider the Dutch!

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Gallimaufry with Bar Graphs

• Learn all about American religious affiliation from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life -- until you get to us. We are in the "Other Faiths" category under (sigh) "New Age." Notice how the Jews and Hindus score highest in education, the evangelical Protestants and JW's lowest.

• Utra Press, the publishers of the journal Tyr now have their own web site.

• Isaac Bonewits is starting his own magick school. Jason Pitzl-Waters has the details.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

Death of a Chief Druid

The awen is a symbol of revived Druidry.
Tim Sebastion, chief of the Secular Order of Druids in the UK, died on February 1.
He was always in the swirl of controversy around Stonehenge. This site, although dated, gives a feel for how that has gone.

His order was formed in 1975 and the acronym was chosen deliberately, or so I have been told. Based on my couple of meetings with Tim (the last in a Bath pub in 2004), it seemed that by appearing to not be totally serious, he was able to be very serious.

He also held the Bardic Chair of Caer Badon (Bath) after founding a gorsedd (poetic competition) in 1995.

A ton of British Druid Web sites exist: Here is a sampling.

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Monday, November 08, 2004

One Druid Down

Fr. William Melnyk, the Episcopal priest in Pennsylvania who was also an active Druid, has resigned.. His wife, Glyn Ruppe-Melnyk, also a Druid and Episcopal priest (no "-ess" allowed), faces disciplinary action.

My last post on this issue is here. Notice that the man must suffer more; women lead us into temptation, but a man is more morally culpable. Thus says the patriarchy.

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Monday, July 07, 2003


I've been working on a section about American Pagan Druids today. First, let me say that I am so glad that I do not have to do anything on British Druids, since in the UK there are two hundred years' worth of self-proclaimed various Druidic groups of all sorts, from the merely fraternal to the seriously Pagan to the almost self-parodying sort. Fortunately, Ronald Hutton has a new book out, Witches, Druids, and King Arthur, which I now have on order.

The best resource that I know of remains Isaac Bonewits' web site. Although he did not become involved until six years after the "We're not really a religion" Reformed Druids began at Carleton College, he remains the central figure of the revival in this country, having devoted more nearly forty years to it--editing journals, writing songs, creating organizations, creating ritual, networking and more networking, creating Web sites. . .

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