Last time I talked about a ritual I attended and my lingering feeling that it’s just futile escapism. Which isn’t such a bad thing. But if we’re looking to care for ourselves and the world, it’s a little disappointing.
This time I want to think about two events from this past week. The first was Ian Rees‘ talk in the Bristol Jung Lecture series. Ian was talking about the psychosocial crisis of Akhenaten’s Egypt as an analogue for thinking about problems today. How can we live through political and cultural upheaval? How can we live in a society where voters choose xenophobia, bigotry, and climate change denial, where conspiracy theories take the place of informed critical thinking about current affairs, and megalomania and hatred masquerade as “telling it like it is?”
I’m not sure I remember Ian’s talk accurately, but what I have taken away begins with the suggestion that the resources for renewal are inside: individuals and communities need to “go down” and discover the sources of pain and hatred in their own psyches. Afterward I talked with Ian about my misgivings about this message. The most important one is that these world-wide socio-political trends are not merely the result of millions of individual psychologies. They have an independent existence. In philosophical terms, we could think of them as “apparatuses” or complex systems: they include not only individual bodies and brains, but political institutions (e.g. the US Republican party), well funded think tanks (e.g. the Heritage Foundation), media networks (e.g. Fox News), companies and governments manipulating big data and targeted marketing on social media, and of course those social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) and the hardware necessary to make them so influential (ubiquitous connectivity, mobile smart phones, etc.). That’s a fiendishly complex problem. It wouldn’t be inappropriate to say the whole system operates like a pantheon of envious and often hostile gods.
Let’s stick with that god metaphor, since this is a paganism blog! In the ritual I mentioned in the last blog, the group attempted to “lay” a hostile spirit (help it pass away). That in itself doesn’t work, unless you believe that meditation or ritual interfaces with some kind of non-local Consciousness and has the power to change it. I by no means disdain that point of view. But it’s at best a weak lever for change. If magic is real, it is a weak force. I have a more positive suggestion, though it’s just a small glimmer of hope.
And in a sense it’s obvious. The groups involved in these gatherings create a space of power and action precisely by discussing and enacting the desire for change. People have no agency unless their voices are heard and the value of their opinions recognized. When we gather and work together, we rediscover the possibility to act. That’s true for all political action groups, so what difference does Jungian psychology or ritual celebration add? It allows us to rest our aspirations on a “deeper” and “higher” foundation. This foundation could be the collective unconscious or the natural world or spirits. Even if we create these things with our collective action and imagination, they’re still “real” in the sense that they “do work”: they relieve us of despair and enhance our agency. In that respect they help in a tiny way to change the pantheon we’re living with. We just mustn’t forget that we also need to think about the gods’ technological, institutional, and economic dimensions.
This morning some friends officiated at the Alban Arthan (Druidic winter solstice) celebration at the prehistoric stone circle out at Stanton Drew. About 160 people drove quite far out into the Mendips before dawn to participate. And it was cold. The message of this festival is one of hope: the new sun is being born, the world renews itself, and things will get better. There are many reasons to be cynical about this hopeful proclamation. But maybe we should suspend our critical reasoning just for this moment, and instead let ourselves be inspired by Druidry’s unabashed and sincere commitment to love and justice.