I love books. I probably feel more at home bookstores and libraries than I do in my own house. Books have had a profound influence on my spiritual evolution. In fact, I can mark certain spiritual transitions by the books I was reading.
This is the second of two posts about the books that have served as markers on the path of my spiritual journey. The first part consisted of the books that influenced me before I was Pagan. This list begins with my discovery of Paganism. There’s actually only a couple of books that are Pagan, per se, and one of them is a history book, which probably says something about my Paganism.
Note, this is not a list of my favorite books, but books that changed the course of my religious life. The dates below are the dates I read the books (to the best of my recollection), not the dates of publication.
I discovered Paganism indirectly through Anne Rice’s novel, The Witching Hour, which is about a New Orleans family of witches. After finishing the book, I went to look up witchcraft at the public library and came across Graham Harvey and Charlotte Hardman’s Paganism Today: Wiccans, Druids, the Goddess, and Ancient Earth Traditions for the Twenty-First Century. In that anthology is a Vivianne Crowley’s above-titled essay, which is essentially a condensed version of her book, Wicca: A Comprehensive Guide to the Old Religion in the Modern World.
Vivianne Crowley is a Jungian therapist, as well as a Wiccan. Religious studies scholar Wouter Hanegraaf has written that her Jungian perspective “is so strong that readers might be forgiven for concluding that Wicca is little more than a religious and ritual translation of Jungian psychology.” This was my introduction to contemporary Paganism, as well as my introduction to Jungian psychology. The two were thereafter intertwined for me, so that now I describe myself as an archetypal polytheist (among other confusing appellations).
2002-2003 — The Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton
This was the next Pagan book I read and it was to forever shape my understanding of Paganism. Having come from a religion which was founded on false historical claims, I wanted nothing to do with the same in Paganism. Hutton freed me from any illusion that contemporary Paganism was a survival of an ancient pagan religion. But in the place of the survival myth, Hutton offered a new religious origin story:
“Instead of a line of martyrs and embattled tradition-bearers, the immediate ancestors of Paganism became a succession of cultural radicals, appearing from the eighteenth century onward, who carried out the work of distinguishing the Pagan elements preserved in Western culture and recombining them with images and ideas retrieved directly from the remains of the ancient past, to create a set of modern religions.”
That was a history I could embrace. Later, I discovered that this view put me at odds with many Pagans, including those who still believed in witchcraft survivals, as well as reconstructonists who were disdainful of the paganism of the Romantics.
This was my introduction to the concept of chakras. Judith approaches chakra as a psychological concept, as well as a physiological one. I had already come to appreciate that what I thought of as “me” was more than my mind, that there were parts of me unrelated to cognition, and they were as much “me” as my brain. The chakra concept allowed me to relate these different parts of my self to different places in my body: my throat, my heart, my solar plexus, my navel, my sacrum, my perineum. This is a somewhat artificial scheme, but I think the idea that we need to listen to different parts of our physical selves is helpful. I soon discovered that my body was the gateway out of the solipsistic prison of my mind.
A few years after leaving the Mormon church, my brother-in-law gave me a copy of James Fowler’s book, Stages of Faith, which turned out to be a godsend. In Stages of Faith, Fowler draws on the theories of psychologists Piaget, Kohlberg, Erickson, and others, to create 6 stages of faith development. You can read about each stage here.
In spite of the limitations of any such scheme, I found Fowler’s stages to be personally helpful to understanding my own life. When I left the Mormon faith, transitioning from the adolescent Stage 3 stage to the young adult Stage 4, I was hurt and angry. I felt that I had been lied to. I wanted nothing to do with organized religion at all. As I started gradually transitioning from Stage 4 to Stage 5, I realized that much of my anger at my religion of origin was really anger that I felt toward myself which I had projected outward. I realized that I was not so much angry that I had been lied to, as I was angry at myself for being deceived (or for lying to myself). Healing from that wound was less about forgiving others, as it was about forgiving myself.
And a critical part of forgiving myself was realizing that the adolescent stage of spirituality was normal and healthy. We cannot be born into the world with an adult spirituality, any more than we can be born into the world with an adult body or adult cognitive faculties. Reading Fowler’s Stages of Faith was invaluable in helping me to realize that spirituality is developed over time and forgive myself for being human. Eventually, it helped me feel more empathy for those for whom the Mormon church was still fulfilling a spiritual function.
Fowler’s book also helped me from getting stuck in the spirituality of young adulthood. It would have been easy to get stuck in the negativity of Fowler’s Stage 4. Realizing that there was something beyond the deconstructive stage of faith helped me to be open to a re-constructive kind of spirituality. It is something I still am striving toward. And in the process, Fowler’s schema for spiritual development helped me make peace with my past and also gave me an inkling of what I wanted to move toward.
Vivianne Crowley was my introduction to Jungian psychology, but I quickly immersed myself in the writings of Carl Jung and many of his interlocutors. I’ve written a lot of Jungian psychology elsewhere, but the basic insight I took from Jung was that it is better to be whole than to be “good.” If you’re interested, here’s a brief introduction to what I call archetypal polytheism.
The most influential collection of Jung’s writings for me was Psychology and Religion: East and West. The most influential Jungian authors for me have been those who have written about religion, including:
David Tacey, Jung and the New Age (If more Pagans read Tacey they would probably have a better opinion of Jung.)
James Hollis, The Archetypal Imagination
So this one may flip people out. But I have to say that my dabbling in LaVeyan Satanism was very cathartic for me. If you’re not familiar, LaVeyans don’t actually believe in Satan (or God for that matter). Satan is simply a symbolic representation of the antithesis of all the unhealthy ideas which come from Christianity. The culmination of my brief foray into Satanism was the creation of a ritualized “divorce” from the Christian god. It wasn’t a very good ritual. (I was new to ritual creation at the time.) But creating and enacting it was very cathartic for me.
In this book, and in her book The Moon: Myth and Image, Cashford develops a panentheistic conception of the Goddess which I still hold today. She draws on Karl Kerenyi’s distinction between the two Greek words for “life”: Zoe and bios. According to Cashford, Zoe signifies the eternal and the infinite, while bios refers to the finite and individual life, the latter being a manifestation of the former. Together they reveal the two facets of existence: eternal and transitory, latent and manifest, potential and actual, invisible and visible. transcendent and immanent. This concept is symbolized by the cycle of the moon and the seasons: the totality is an enduring cycle, which can never be seen at any given moment.
This is expressed mythologically in the drama of the Goddess and her son and consort. She is the eternal source, Zoe, which gives birth to the son-lover, bios, who in turn dies and returns to the source. The son-lover must accept his fate and reunion with the Goddess in order to be reborn. Patriarchal cultural can be understood as a rejection of this fate and an attempt to achieve immortality separate from the cycle of the Goddess.
I later found this concept expressed in the writings of Joseph Campbell, Francis Cornford’s From Religion to Philosophy (Campbell and Cornford call the concept “palingenesis”), Jane Ellen Harrison’s Prolegomena, and Starhawk’s Spiral Dance.
I can’t recall when exactly I discovered Mary Oliver’s poetry, but it had a profound impact on me. “The Journey” captures vividly how I felt leaving the Mormon church. Though I had already left the Church, the poem gave me solace. And her poems “Wild Geese”, “Bone”, and “One or Two Things” inspired some of the rituals which are a part of my personal practice.
It’s no exaggeration to say that David Abram transformed my Paganism, so much so that, when asked what kind of Paganism I practice, I say I am an archetypal polytheist and a “naturalistic animist” — the second part of that being inspired by Abram. I first read Abram’s shorter essays which can be found on the Alliance for Wild Ethics website. It was only later that I got around to reading Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal.
Abram opened up the animate world to me. Whereas before, my Paganism was almost entirely inwardly focused, Abram connected my Paganism to the living, breathing world. Abram makes the case that our most immediate experience is of being immersed in an animate world, and we make the world into a world of dead objects only by artificially abstracting ourselves–our own living, breathing bodies–out of it.
This is not about the projection of consciousness or agency onto “inanimate” objects, but openness to and reciprocity within a more-than-human community which transcends the subject-object dichotomy. Practicing animism requires returning to our natural awareness of our sensorial reciprocity with the material world. I’m still working this out in practice. This will be the subject of many future posts, I think.
Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was one of the first African-American science fiction writers, and one of the first women to break the science fiction gender barrier. The series is set in the near future when the United States has all but collapsed due to economic pressures, and theft, rape, and murder are the rule. The heroine creates a new religion, which she calls “Earthseed” and which is adopted by a small community of refugees. In the books, Butler includes many verses from a fictional book of scripture she calls “The Book of the Living”.
The central tenet of Earthseed is: “God is Change. Shape God.” What was interesting to me about this notion of God is not only that God changes us, but also that we can change God — that life is a reciprocal interaction between God and the universe, a notion which I believe was borrowed from process theology, and is reflected in some of Starhawk’s writing. Butler’s God is not a being to be loved or worshiped. Rather, in Butler’s words, God is to be perceived, attended to, learned from, shaped, and ultimately (at death) yielded to.
Earthseed also makes the case that the “Destiny” of life on earth is to spread among the stars. Because Earthseed is a naturalistic religion, Earthseed’s heaven is literally in the heavens — i.e., in space. We don’t get there by dying, and we likely will not reach it in any of our lifetimes. While there is no personal immortality in Earthseed, the Destiny creates the possibility of a kind of species immortality, or at least immortality for some form of Earth-life.
I was also inspired by Butler’s Xenogenesis series, which is not explicitly religious, but can be read as a application of Earthseed’s principles.
These ideas inspired me so much that I wanted to create a living version of Butler’s Earthseed, which I did. There is now a community blog at GodisChange.org and a Facebook group for people who identify as Shapers of Earthseed, and I hope that it will develop into more.