Theology on ZOOM

Text of the Beltaine Sermon I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ottawa, May 1, 2022.

Blessed Beltaine Greetings to you all. May you revel in the Merry Month of May, and May your labour be rewarded by Bread and Roses

Well a bit of biography: I joined CUUPS, the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans several months ago. I had, in fact, been meaning to join for years, having heard of them from my dear friend Kate Chung (at First U in Toronto) but had just never gotten around to it. You might know Kate, or might know of her, because Kate ran the “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” workshops. I believe there were three sessions of them in all, and, somewhere among my boxes of papers, I still have the work books and curricula. It is an amazing course, which I highly recommend to introduce the majesty and persistence of the Goddess in her many forms. We’ll come back to the Goddess a bit further on. Well, I finally joined CUUPS because I had responded to a thread on their Facebook page, and thought it might be a bit rude to intrude if I were not a bone fide member myself. I am so glad I did. I’ll come back to that thread a bit later, too.

You probably will not be surprised that there is an organization under the aegis of Unitarian Universalism that caters to Pagans in particular. Many of you will have come from backgrounds rooted in other religious traditions, have made your way to Unitarian Universalism as adults and will know that there are associations of Buddhist UUs, Humanist UUs, Jewish UUs and Christian UUs. Why not Pagan UUs as well. After all, UUs have often been accused, or praised, for being a catch-all umbrella, for the less liturgically inclined and the more fellowship and rationalist inclined.

In fact, it might be the case that I am one of the rare birds who was introduced to Unitarianism as a child. My mum hosted the Unitarian Fellowship of Jackson Mississippi in her home there for several years, a kind of house church, non church. I heard Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals there when I was about 5 – bored me to tears, though it probably would not now. Books and tapes came down from civilized and sophisticated Boston to the outback of Dixie, toward the redemption of our social souls. It might not have worked. When we came to Toronto in 1959, my family joined the First Unitarian Congregation and I attended, as many teenagers do, sporadically. And, as an adult, I ,too, came back for the fellowship, since I really could not get into Christian liturgy (the way my darling daughter has done – awkward to say the least). But more on liturgy too, in a little while.

I came to Paganism as an adult, at the University of Toronto in 1986, where there was a Pagan Student Association, and I became quite involved in the Celtic Paganism being practiced by many of the women in the Celtic Studies department, both students and teachers. Like UUism, Paganism itself is a catch all. There are Germanic and Norse Heathens who revere Thor, Freya, Odin/Wodin, Siff; there are Slavic Pagans who revere Perkun, Perun, Dzbog, Lada and Baba Yaga, indeed, Slavic Paganism has the distinction of having resisted the march of Christianity, Lithuania managing to hang on as a Pagan state until 1353, and having managed to survive into the present day, in Russia and Ukraine (of all the ironies) in the former, the Mari still revere the Oak, in the later, Pagan and Goddess motifs decorating Easter Eggs are renowned all over the world. In several other Baltic countries Paganism has revived from original roots. Lithuania, mentioned previously, has reinstated its native Paganism as a recognized state religion. A temple rises there, as it does in Iceland in the Norse/Germanic fold, after a thousand years. There is Roman and Hellenic Paganism whose Gods and Goddess you know: Zeus/Jupiter, Athena, Aphrodite, Artemis and more. And of course there is Celtic Paganism: whose deities may be less familiar but will be known to some: Brigid, Lugh, Arianhod, Rhianon, the Dagda, the Morrigan, and Eriu . Much Paganism today is “reconstructed” and, indeed, is what the new generation might call a “mash up”, blended. There are purists, trying to reconstruct “the real thing”, region by region, and there are others picking up bits from both history and intuition, of what they can. Of all the modern Paganisms, Wicca, and especially the “Reclaiming Tradition” of Starhawk, and the sisters of “The Covenant of the Goddess” carry the most spiritual clout and have the highest membership. Many in CUUPs, for example are Wiccan as well as UU.

But one common thread is the feeling of coming home to what one has always been, what one, at core, is.

And I certainly felt that way. Paganism was who I was, who I am and, I suspect, always will be. Indeed, I took a vow in 1992, and that vow is why I wear “The Green”, in service to the Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone, especially in her task of negotiating between humans and the other creatures with whom we share this World. The Green standing, of course, for the Greenwood, the haunt of Earthly deities. About that, I am not at liberty to speak more. But about Paganism within Unitarianism, there is much more to be said

There seems a deep affinity between some aspects of Paganism and Unitarianism, given the focus of earth centred spirituality, and the notion of an “interdependent Web of all existence of which we are a part”. This concept of “the Web”, of weaving, and of Earth centred Spirituality has been gaining traction for some time. The 70s were really a time of flowering for Paganism, which seemed to wane as Islam took centre stage, and then surged back again, probably because of climate and environmental concerns. There are many other ways in which Paganism meshes quite well with UU principles and practices.

There is also, however, a certain tension between the Pagan/Wiccan focus on Magic and the Unitarian preference for rationalism, or perhaps a better way to say that is that mention of magic, serious mention of magic, can make rationalists a bit uncomfortable.

Though Paganism felt like coming home at last, I found, eventually that I did have a problem with Paganism, and it wasn’t the insistence on the Reality of Magic. I had had what can only be described as a Spiritual encounter with the Cosmos. In 1977, I was sailing on a boat in the Caribbean when we sailed into “a fall of stars”- they were falling all around us, making a sort of pinging sound. It was absolutely thrilling, and yet incredibly serene at the same time. Blue fire danced along the spars – and along our arms and formed blue haloes round our heads. We had no fear about what was happening. It felt “right”, like some awesome blessing being bestowed. We sailed for hours in that star fall, until a constellation (I think it was Scorpio, but I am not sure) seemed suddenly to rise and to sit on the horizon like a crown, shimmering in blazing Glory against a velvet Blackness. Eventually the sky began to lighten toward dawn and the stars stopped falling, stopped singing, and faded away. It left me with the deepest sense of Cosmic participation that you could imagine. I fell into the Sky and part of me is still there.

It is time to give you your Cosmic address – did you know that you have one? So the next time you write a letter you will have to add:

Earth/Ternatea (third rock from the Sun)
Sol Solar System
Orion Arm, Spiral Galaxy
In the Virgo Supercluster
Universe One

(Because Scientific Cosmologists think there might be more than one universe – it is all about perspective, isn’t it)

So my problem with Paganism, and for that matter, Earth Centred Spirituality, is this: How does Maiden Mother Crone, or any of our Earthly Gods, relate to that Cosmos. Well there is a book called “The Cosmic Mother” that attempts to do just that – writing the Great Goddess, Magna Mater, even larger, and that takes care of that…

But I couldn’t buy it, I knew both things were “true” at the same time: the authority of the Maiden, Mother, Crone – and the music of the Spheres, but they seemed disarticulate. Then in 2010, while working on my degree in Religious Studies, I came across an answer, one that linked Earth and her Gods to the Cosmos and its Gods through the a Spiritual “Philosophy” worked out millennia ago. What might seem an arcane and irrelevant detour, was – is – actually, a key that unlocks a universe of meaning, at least it did for me. And I am here today to share that with you. Here, I come back to the thread on the CUUPS FB page that persuaded me to answer the question which had been posed, and to join CUUPS as part of that answer.

The young man in question, had posed a common concern: can I “believe” in both Jesus and in Pagan Gods. Many had answered him that gods do not matter, it’s the principles that count. Some had spoken, not of principles but deeds: behaving well was what counted most. Some spoke of this god or that that had become a focus of reverence for them.

I answered him that there was a schema that provided for the inclusion of gods, plural, required principles and required beneficent action as well. It turns out that, in an age that tried to be as scientific as our own, a tradition of philosophical inquiry was forged, and passed down, from the middle of the second century until the 6th century, when the last academy was closed. Beginning, as far as we know, with Ammonius Sacca, whose project was to reconcile Plato with Aristotle, and passing through the luminaries of Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus of Chalcis, “the Divine Iamblichus” and in the academies, Athens, Alexandria where Hypatia taught mathematics and philosophy, and in Apamea, these ideas infiltrated Christianity and made their way, through several underground streams, to us. These ideas provided a framework to think about Earthly, Terrestrial Gods, and to think about Cosmic Gods, indeed to think about The One, Beyond Knowing and Telling, and to understand how Divinity rained down on us and into us, like a Star Fall.

Before I tell you more about this, I want to tell you why it is “socially important”. These thinkers were trying to counter what they considered a pernicious notion, a blasphemy, infecting the Hellenic, Roman, Jewish and Christian theologies of the time: that our world was “fallen”, that the World was evil, and self-servingly – that those with menial work, menial lives were, not only fallen, but lost. This “stop the world, I want to get off”ethos (and because I do want to get off, I am better than those tied to the material World by labour and comfort) that ethos led, in their time to the abandonment of civic enterprise, led to justifications for both withdrawal and for excess, and led to a disregard for human life and misery.

The thinkers to whom I refer are known to us as the Neoplatonists, and I encountered them first in a book by Gregory Shaw, entitled Theurgy and the Soul, on the reconstruction from fragments of the work of Iamblichus of Chalcis. Remember that I had become a Pagan in 1986, and took formal vows in 1992. It was only when I read, in 2010, what Iamblichus’ project was, that I could comprehend that Star Fall and its relation to the Goddess whom I served. That which the Neoplatonist’s were trying to counter, is known to us as Gnosticism, one influential strand of which contributed to the belief in a fallen debased world, permeated by evil, and that social divisions reflected the typology of exile. Although the developing Christian Church formally repudiated that belief – God saw his creation and saw that it was good – the notion of a fallen world, a debased materiality and an exiled humanity remained to plague Western civilization for the next 1500 years, and still does. Which is why the arguments against it are so important to recap today. Indeed, they were so potent in refuting that set of pernicious ideas then, that Paganism had a revival under the emperor Julian, that Dionysius the Aeropagite purloined a distorted version of them into the liturgy of the church, and that Iamblichus work, most of all, was systematically destroyed, much as Hypatia was herself destroyed as the embodiment of all the church wanted to conquer.

So what were these ideas that were so very dangerous? They were ideas that linked the Cosmos to Earth, and provided a Spiritual practice as a Way to take up our responsibilities as co-creators of a continually renewing Existence.

If I haven’t confused you yet, let me go a bit further. Our best astro physicist are Cosmologists: trying to work out the Cosmogony – the birth -and death of the universes (hear that plurality), and its Cosmology – the structure and function of the entire Cosmos, including all its universes, times, galaxies, solar systems and planets. From that perspective, the concerns of Earth could seem a tad provincial, but they are not, they, too, are an integral part of that Cosmology, as is every living thing, every life form in all of Existence. So too, the philosophers of the late antique world were likewise concerned with all that scientific Cosmologists of today are concerned with, and they strove to come up with an intelligible framework that accurately reflected Reality, and the Mystery of Reality as best they could. So too, there is a surprising Spiritual dimension to today’s Cosmology, and how could there not be, confronted by that Immense Majesty. I emphasize that overlap between the philosophers of old and the scientists of today, in studying the Cosmogony and Cosmology of the Reality within which we live, move and have our being and I do so because, it is a matter of perspective. Looking up, things fall and if you are not careful, they can seem fallen. Whereas, in Reality, they are becoming more densely manifest from a Radiance we can scarcely fathom.

The schema that the Neoplatonists came up with, and which is echoed by many of today’s Cosmologists, is this: There is The One, beyond all knowing and telling, from which, from whom ? everything radiates into more dense manifestation – which then returns toward the Source in a Great Cycle. Along the Way, in that Cycle, are what one might terms plateaus of concentrated divinity, which we might call the Gods, Deities, Spirits of our World, and so with every World in the Cosmos. We can access those concentrated divinities, as well as the divine within ourselves, through perception, preparation, practice. And it is vital that we do so, for we, as with all intelligence, all spirit, co-create, re-create the Cosmos everyday. Wherever we find ourselves on the Great Cycle, we can become more fully participant: thus, I can serve my Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone and know that I am entering into a vastly larger conversation about what it means to be a Cosmic Soul.

And now we come to the really thorny part: Magic. And to liturgy. Iamblichus was careful to distinguish between Mageia and mere Goeteia, the former was in the Service of the Great Cycle, the latter was tricks for profit, as stark as that. To really serve, one had to take up “Theurgy” -the Work of the Gods, not simply indulge in Theology, talk about the Gods. Theurgy meant study, practice, ritual (much as we might think of Tai Chi, Yoga or Meditation, think of chanting as a form of liturgy) as preparing our minds, bodies, souls to be receptive to the apprehension of the Divine, around us, within us, and to reach forward toward that Divine, to do our part as co-creators, regenerators of the Cosmos. Thus, Iamblichus taught that the Great Radiance was an energy which we might, rightly, call Love, and Theurgy was the Labour that turned Love into the World. We choose what World we desire through the calibre of our Love and our Labour.

On this beautiful May Morning, then, I invite you all to look up to the Stars, even as you feel the ground beneath your feet, and to participate – in whatever Way seems best to you, in the Great Cycle of Regenerative Reality, through the Magic of Love, and the Magic of Aware Labour.

Blessed Beltaine, now and always,
Make Merry, Make Love, Labour in Love.

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