Neoplatonism at Cherry Hill

A friend sent me this link today, knowing that it would pique my interest. It piques my interest because 1) my sub-specialty in the field of Islamic History is the history of Islamic Neoplatonism, and 2) I’ve written before on the problematic relationship between Neopaganism and Neoplatonism.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Cherry Hill Seminary recently, for a variety of reasons. I almost applied there, for one thing! But more to the point at the moment is a conversation I had a few months ago at a meeting of the Hyde Park Pagan Potluck*: We were discussing the possibility (or rather, the impossibility) of pagan education, and whether or not such a thing is possible when pagan theology and practice is so nebulously (and often contradictorily) defined. Eventually we came to the topic of pagan seminaries, of which the best example is Cherry Hill. Without clear boundaries as to what constitutes contemporary paganism, its theology, history, and practice, how is it possible to create meaningful syllabi for study?  (At the moment I won’t go into my problems with “Pagan Studies” as a field. Regardless, if no one is clear on what exactly makes up paganism, how can one study “Pagan Ministry”?)

The last thing that has been on my mind recently about Cherry Hill was Dr. Catherine Hoff Kraemer’s remarks during the New Media panel at this year’s Pantheacon, which was made available to me and to you through the courtesy of T. Thorn Coyle, here.

What’s got my mental gears a-grindin’ today is this: By its very nature as an academic institution, Cherry Hill has had to find a working answer to the question of “What is Paganism?” In so doing, the seminary is also a normativizing force, suggesting bit-by-bit what exactly defines pagan theology.

And that’s fine. What I find frustrating (distasteful?) is that, by virtue of their endorsement of Sam Webster’s Neoplatonic theurgy intensive, their answer to this question seems to be, at least in part: “Neoplatonism.”

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Nocturnal Me.

Sleep has been eluding me, my friends, for about a week now. It’s 5:40 Am and, just like every night recently, I find myself gazing at myself in the mirror that sits across from my bed, holding staring contests with myself. So far, it’s been a standoff.

I’ve always jokingly said that I’m just nocturnal. Whenever I haven’t got somewhere to be in the mornings, I find myself staying up later and later into the evenings, until it becomes like this when I couldn’t even get to sleep before 3 AM if I wanted to.

We used to live in a pretty big house out in the country, and I remember sneaking downstairs (though I’m sure my parents weren’t unawares, really) and watching cartoons all night every weekend, challenging myself to stay up past midnight, past 1 AM, past — gasp! — 2, 3, 4, and even once, one glorious saturday morning, staying up and meeting the sun as it rose up over the hedge-apple row. I remember slowly opening the front door (it must have been around 5:30) and walking out onto the concrete sidewalk that went out to the driveway — the ground was too cold for my bare feet and I wanted to rush back inside, but everything was so beautiful: The Sun rising in the east, over the hedgerow (“Don’t go there — snakes”) and butterflies in the field that sloped down along the long drive to the highway. There was corn in the field out to the west that year, and even though I wouldn’t dare go out into the corn rows at night for fear of monsters and axe-murderers, there in the morning light and the cold, crisp air the smell of the still-green ears rushed into my lungs like a drug.

On the nights when my resolve wasn’t so firm, I’d lay down a blanket on the floor in front of the TV and nod off to whatever I’d found on the Satellite, to be found in the morning and shooed off by my mother, or by the sound of my grandparents driving up the lane ready to take me to church.

Those were the times when I saw my first episode of Star Trek. It was the TOS episode “The Apple,” the one with the lizard-headed cave and the orange-skinned “humanoid primitives.” It was also when I saw reruns of Tales from the Crypt and Back to the Future.

It was also the first time (to the horror of my parents, I’m sure) that I saw string bikinis (thanks to Starz’s late-nite lineup–I was scandalized), fuzzy soft-core, and B horror flicks and Audrie Hepburn and — AND — Tom Cruise’s pre-Scientology wonder-thighs and the gay fantasy nerd wet dream that is the film Legend.

…I suppose I could go on about this for a great long while, but there wouldn’t be much point to it. I’ve just noticed the daylight coming in the window now, just like that day when I was 8. I’m not what you’d call a “Morning Person,” but I do love these few moments when I’m still awake and the world around me is just waking up. Hmm… Anyway, it’d be nice if my nocturnal nature didn’t kick in the week before finals!


Have a nice week. Light a candle for Japan.

St. Petr Ginz

Last Wednesday I turned 22.

St. Petr Ginz was 16 when he died.

Petr Ginz died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz on Sept. 28th, 1944. Petr, a Czechoslovak Jew, was a visual artist and writer as well as an avid learner. At Terezín, the concentration camp where he was kept before being transferred to Auschwitz, Ginz was editor-in-chief of Vedem, a journal produced by a group of child artists. Ginz’s diary, which has been compared to that of Anne Frank, has been published in Spanish, Catalan, Esperanto (of which Ginz was a speaker), and recently in English as “The Diary of Petr Ginz 1941-1942”.

Ginz’s story was made famous in 2003 amid coverage of the Columbia shuttle disaster. Col. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, had sought to take an object related to the Holocaust with him on his space flight on Columbia, and was presented with a special reproduction of Ginz’s “Moon Landscape,” a drawing created at Terezín that depicts a fantastic view of Earth from the Moon (below).

After the explosion of the Columbia shuttle, the Jewish community was wracked by the parallel tragic deaths of two of its own, Ginz and Ramon, both men who had demonstrated so much ability and promise. The tragedy was especially poignant given that the shuttle breakup had occurred on the anniversary of Petr’s birthday, Feb. 1st.

Though not Jewish, I too have been moved by Ginz’s story. His is a story of adversity in the midst of horror, a story that proves that there can be calm and beauty even in dark times. And yet… and yet… do we dishonor Ginz and other victims of genocide by weaving a silver lining into each of their stories? Perhaps this is a necessary human mechanism, to keep us all from going mad: Something so horrific could not be possible, there must be some lesson to be gleaned!

And yet…

No, I do not think it is dishonoring if we take the good with the bad — or rather, the mote of hope buried deep in the pit of ashes. And so I honor Ginz and the other child artists in the death camps, in this oh-so-small way, and leave you (and myself) to simply contemplate the earth seen from space, the earth that is so green and good and yet which, paradoxically, houses evil.

Vedem, the title of the Terezín youths’ journal, means We Lead. Let the memory of Ginz’s verdant life and black death lead us to contemplation and action to end the suffering of children and all people, and toward the end of genocide.

Lastly, a poem published in Vedem by another child at Terezín, Orce (AKA Zdenek Ornest 1929-1990) who, you’ll notice, survived.

The Thaw

Silently, lightly, slowly it drifts down

Onto the black and bleeding earth,

From somewhere up high, steadily descending

Whirling in the air on a tender breeze.

Covering all and glittering strangely,

As if to envelop this aged rot

And as in a dream, suddenly everything

Becomes once again what it once used to be.

Hidden is the filth that blankets the world

Hidden the darkness that blinds us all

Hidden the hunger that makes us retch,

Hidden the paid that breaks our backs.

Just for a while we breathe again freely

Drugged by the glitter, by the world all in white

I look out the window, the steady snow falling

And suddenly everything’s water again.

On Rite Conduct

I want to take a minute and discuss something that has been rumbling around in my head for the last few weeks – piety. “Pietas” is a Roman word and referred to one of the virtues expected of a man (*gag*), wherein a man “performed all his duties towards the deity and his fellow human beings fully and in every respect.”

I hate the fact that historically this word has such gendered connotations. But – as with all concepts from the ancient world that we try to resurrect – we’ll have to do the best we can to overcome that bias. I’m also not very keen on the fact that having pietas also involved a man’s commitment to country – but we are talking about the Romans, after all. Of course, the concept has had a life since the Romans. Groups with roots in the Mediterranean world have all developed their take on pietas and, down through the centuries, Anglophone culture has inherited a Christian sense of the word “piety” that emphasizes psychological humility.

I’d like to go back to the drawing board and construct a new kind of piety, but a piety re-grounded in the aspect of “pietas” that emphasizes ritual propriety. Of course, propriety is all a matter of taste, and “Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition.” I’m not trying to lay down rules and regulations for how you should interact in your rituals under the auspices of your gods. But, I would like to see pagans and new polytheists enter into deeper conversations regarding ritual conduct and the theological implications inherent therein, and then to go about including their conclusions regarding ritual conduct into their ritual practices. My wish is that this piece of writing can inform some of those conversations.

So, I’d like to define piety as respectful and harmonious conduct in the presence of gods. Thus, I see two sides to piety: ritual piety and personal piety.

In order to discuss the relationship between ritual piety and personal piety, first it will be useful to outline a distinction I first encountered in J. Van Baal’s article on “Offering, sacrifice, and gift,” which has done a lot to shape my ideas about domestic polytheism and ritual. The distinction I’m referring to is between “high-intensity” ritual situations and “low-intensity” situations.

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A Holy Terror: Celebrating St. MLK

Today is, I’m sure you know, the national celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. You may not also know that two days ago was the Feast Day of Saint Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..

My People, make a joyful noise! All Hail the Prophet of Justice, Human and Divine!

Now, before I say anything else, please read this. Everything I could possibly say about MLK should be taken as a footnote to that piercing piece of prose.

I feel a great Terror on this day, my friends. I peer out the window into the hazy-gray sky and sense Nemesis winking at me through the raven-flocked tree branches. What can I say about this man of whom so much has already been said? How can I, a young white man, speak about this black man who lived and died before I was even born? How can I speak his Holy Name while sitting here, wrapped up and comfortable in my college-kid apartment, while complicit in the knowledge that homeless people, mostly black women and men, still live on those same streets that I jog down toward my petty affairs? I am, after all, one of those academics that Lorenzo Komboa Ervin so-rightly criticized in the piece linked to above.

But, but, — Always so many Buts from you, Johnny! —  But I will speak that man’s Good Name in humility and reverence, apology and caution, nonetheless.

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Feast of the Fig Tree

Make a joyful noise, my friends. Now begins the first Feast of the Martyred Fig Tree!

A few months ago I posted about what I call “The People’s Saints.” That is, deceased individuals whom I have chosen to honor religiously for their actions, their spirit, their stories while living:

Sure, I’m only calling them “Saints” because that is a word that has a lot of power for me – it ALREADY has meaning as a title. Sure, my obsession with folk-catholicism is obviously shining through here in its full glory. But GODDAMNIT I’m going to keep on sainting folks and putting images of them on my altars and praying to them because they’re WICKED AWESOME. I’m saying we should raise hell for the Glorious Dead.

I’ve come up with dates on which to celebrate particular individuals, and I’ve arbitrarily chosen (along with Ruby Sara, my constant companion in all such things) today to celebrate and honor not a human, but a plant.

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A Rant About Unintended Insults

What I am about to tell you is not about paganism—or maybe it is. Also: The following is a rant.

It happened again today, you see, or perhaps last week. There I was, conversing as always (surely about French Structuralism, or the nature of the Image, or how much I love Reuben sandwiches) when someone raised their hand and cut me off.

“Wait a minute,” they said, obviously puzzled, “did you just say the word y’all?”

“Why yes, yes I did,” I reply, and before the conversation could go on any further I already knew how it would go: First, my co-conversationalist would look me over, sizing me up – Are they wondering whether I am a physical threat, I ask myself? Hardly. Are they considering my potential bone-ability? Hopefully, but alas, probably not.

Are they trying to work out the perceived contradiction between my oh-so hip and urban Gap jacket, my Boystown buzz-cut, and my sizeable vocabulary (on the one hand) and (on the other) the torrent of stereotypes, pre-conceived notions, and generally not-so-couth ideas about rural (often “Southern”) America? Bingo. Then, they will verbally kick me in the face:

“But,” they tease, obviously unaware of my inner monologue, “you don’t act like a hick.” Apparently the reality of my rural background has hit them for the first time, and they don’t know what to do with this new information.

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