Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Three Ásatrú Worldviews, Part Three

As in Part One and Part Two of this series, the questions asked by Bob Smietana (religion journalist and president of the Religion Newswriters Association) are in printed in red. Full answers from Haukur Bragason (goði of the Ásatrúarfélagið), Steven T. Abell (Steersman of The Troth) and me are below each question.

7. How would you compare how you teach your kids about heathenry with how your parents raised you?

Haukur Dór Bragason
I was raised by Christian parents. My mother tought me to pray. I had my Christian child-faith until I was around fifteen, but I really never felt good about it. I was afraid of Hell, and I didn't understand God. I've never felt as free as when I lost my faith.

Haukur reading with his daughter

I do not want to teach my kid anything about Heathenry as a spiritual thing. I teach her the stories, and she likes them – just as she likes Cinderella and Frozen. I stop there. I have no right to impose religion upon my child. It is my belief that children shouldn't think about religion, be afraid of Hell, or try to understand God or other gods and religions. Let's save that for a later day.

Steven T. Abell
My parents read to me and talked with me about all kinds of things. I don't recall that they ever talked down to me – not that it would have turned out well if they had tried. I made an effort to do the same with my daughter.

I grew up going to a mainstream Christian church in the 1950s and 1960s – not the firebreathing kind. I was required by my parents to go to Sunday school. When the teachers were good, it was okay – but not for the religious aspects. My family was never overtly religious, but church was an important part of our life for a long time. That disintegrated as the late-1960s took hold of things.

When my daughter was little, I took her to a mainstream Christian church – not the firebreathing kind. The religion was never important to me, but I wanted her to know something like the community I had growing up. There were several reasons we stopped going there.

After I discovered organized Heathenry, we attended those events regularly. She is grown now, but still likes to attend when her schedule permits.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
I think I covered this in my earlier answers, really.

8. What do your kids think about being Heathen? Do they ever get pushback from their friends about their religion? Do you get pushback from friends and family?

Haukur Dór Bragason
My kid isn't Heathen. My kid's just a kid.

I don't get pushback. Heathenry is respected in Iceland.

Steven T. Abell
My daughter went to a high school that was almost entirely Catholic (the Filipino population) or Baptist (the Black population). I remember her saying that sometimes she had friends who were having trouble with whatever the religion was at home, and she would tell them that there were other options. If she caught any flack for this, I didn't hear about it.

My mom is still a little uncomfortable about me being Heathen, but some things have changed for her. For one thing, she comes to Yule at our house now, then goes home a day or two later. She says that Christmas is "someone else's holiday" now, and that seems to be just fine.

Lightning over Silicon Valley (Photo: Michael Ramirez)

I live and work in Silicon Valley. Most of my coworkers are Hindus. We can and do have very interesting conversations about our pantheons and their putative common origins. Here, I only occasionally meet people who react negatively. There are other places I could live, even in California, where I would probably have to pretty much hide out. A friend of mine is not only Heathen, but a professor of Evolutionary Biology at a college in the Deep South. I don't know how he does it. A well-developed sense of humor probably helps.

Some Heathens have an awful time with family over it. These stories appear in our online discussion groups all the time, posted by people who are trying to be nothing but honest and respectful with their kin. And being overtly pagan of any stripe is still the wrong thing to be during some divorces. Some judges never figure out what Freedom of Religion actually means.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
I'm not quite sure how to answer that question. Pushback implies that I'm trying to force my beliefs on someone, and that the person is resisting. One thing that I think most followers of Ásatrú would agree on is that proselytization is not part of being Heathen.

When speaking about the founding of the Ásatrúarfélagið (“Æsir Faith Fellowship”) in Iceland and about the organization's structural rules, Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson once said, "In the law, it's forbidden to go out and do missionary work. No one should be able to force his beliefs on another. They come on their own, when they are minded to do so." I wholeheartedly agree with that idea, and I think that our world would be a much better place if this policy was adopted by people of all faiths.

A completely valid objection to this viewpoint would be to argue that a tradition will eventually die out if it doesn't find new members. I would counter that this religion that we practice is the rebirth of a faith that was willfully stamped out and eradicated by Christian missionaries and their converts, yet managed to come back and grow when the time was right – without having to do violence to anyone, force unwilling people into the religion, or proselytize to convince others that this is The One True Path.

Can you imagine a world in which all religious people had enough confidence in their tradition's teachings and its spiritual power that they simply let people come to it on their own? What if we lived in a world where people stopped worrying about the spread of their religion and simply practiced it? Will we ever reach a point on this planet where people stop caring about what other people believe?

If it's right for you, you'll find a Heathen path – no missionaries needed.

No, I don't get pushback from friends and family about my religion. They continue to be supportive, curious and welcoming. The pushback I regularly receive has been from people in positions of power related to religion, most often where there is money involved.

I wrote an article for Interfaith Ramadan about some closed doors I've run into when engaging with interfaith organizations and religion news organizations. I've been told by administrators and reporters from around the world that Ásatrú isn't included in interfaith organizations (because it's uncomfortable for their members to be confronted with the unfamiliar), that Ásatrú isn't newsworthy (unless a Heathen commits a violent crime), and that Heathen voices aren't needed (because Christian journalists can explain every worldview).

So, the pushback I've received has only occurred when I've called for inclusion of Ásatrú at the table with the religious traditions currently dominant in our culture. Institutionalized power structures are a Hel of a Thing, if you'll forgive me for a Norse pun.

9. Do you think the Norse gods are real? Are they actual beings, or are they myths who inhabit inspiring stories?

Haukur Dór Bragason
Yes and no. Usually, when a Christian asks me the question "Do you think the old gods are real?", what he really means is, "Do you believe in the old gods in the same way as I believe in God?" In that case, the answer is no, they are not "real."

The monotheist religion and fundamentalism are not comparable to this polytheist religion, or what I would like to call siður (way, custom, tradition) instead of religion. It is hard for someone brought up thinking "monotheism = religion" to understand a whole other belief system and an entirely different set of rules – or lack of rules, more pertinently. He doesn't have to be a religious man to have a hard time getting it; he just has to be used to this monotheist religious frame, and then he might have a hard time thinking outside that frame – and that's understandable.

The old gods are the powers around and within us given names. They are earth, sea, wind and fire; they are strength, lust, fertility and greed. They are nature and human nature. I don't feel the need to find something more divine than the stars above me and the incomprehensible distance between them. The immense power of a large waterfall, the breathtaking beauty of rare rock formations or the black depths of unknown oceans – to me, this is divine. I am struck with awe when I think about Mother Earth and the world we live in.

Milky Way, northern lights & volcano (Iceland photo: Maciej Winiarczyk)

So, if by asking "Do you think the old gods are real," you are really asking "Is there something more than man?" – then the answer is yes, the old gods are real. We are surrounded by divinity.

The poems and stories found in the Eddas are man-made; they are not considered to be holy texts from divine sources. The people created gods in their own image and gave them names. This way of drawing the entities people saw as gods near them, giving them a human form and names – they were able to familiarize them and think about them more concretely. If you walk through a forest what you might see is just green grass and trees. If you know your plant taxonomy, you see all kinds of different plants; you know them by name, and you are much more familiar with your surroundings. An unknown face in the crowd is just part of the people, but as soon as someone tells you his/her name, he stands out and you associate him/her with an identity.

What I'm trying to say is that we do much better thinking about something that we have names for, and that it's very understandable that people did this. That's how the stories come to life. In that sense, the gods are much more than "myths who inhabit inspiring stories." If what you mean by "actual beings" is someone I could meet at the grocery store, the answer is no – but since there is nothing more "actual" than the wind you feel on your face or the ground beneath your feet, the answer has to be yes.

Steven T. Abell
What do you mean by "real"?

Some Heathens believe the gods have physical bodies. Some believe they are spirit beings. Some believe they are deep pervasive metaphors. Some don't believe in gods at all – but if they did, these would be the ones. The "belief" thing is not all that important to most Heathens. The kind of person you are, on the other hand, is.

Steven T. Abell in a photo from The Troth Blog

I have a hypothesis about what gods are and how they work – one that does not require the supernatural to be effective.

Meanwhile, I am Steersman (Executive Director) of The Troth, an international Heathen organization. Our members fall into all of these categories and probably more. I don't talk much about my personal take on things, as a point of respect to my office and our members. Ask me again in late 2016 and we might have a more interesting conversation.

I will tell you this: gods are not immortal, but the good ones are very hard to kill. Unfortunately, so are the bad ones.

Karl E. H. Seigfried
I think the Norse gods are absolutely real. I do not, however, think that they are walking, talking characters like they are portrayed in the Norse myths. This distinction seems to hang up a lot of people – some Heathens included. If one does not literally believe that Thor is a burly fellow with a red beard and a hammer who drives a chariot pulled by goats through the sky during thunderstorms – so the argument goes – then one is really an atheist. I don't think this is true.

Among Heathens, there is a very wide range of relationships with the divine. Depending on whom you ask, the gods are natural forces, psychological drives, poetic constructs, cultural figures, immanent material beings, or something else entirely. I may disagree strongly with what another Heathen believes to be the nature of the gods, but that doesn't mean that her experience of the divine isn't valid for her in as deep and as profound a way as that of someone with a radically different concept of godhood – in Ásatrú or any other tradition.

I believe that the gods are all around us. I feel Thor's power in the intense thunderstorm of the midwestern summer. I feel Odin's inspiration in the moment of musical improvisation. I feel the presence of the elves in the quietest places of the northern forests. In the surviving Old Norse texts, the gods are sometimes referred to as "the powers." I can understand that concept at a very fundamental level.

As for the myths, I think they portray the gods in understandable form – as symbols interacting with each other in narrative. Listening to a story about Thor can be a spiritual experience that is related to – but very different from – experiencing the presence of his power in the storm. Personally, I don't think we should take mythical narratives literally as history; to do so does violence, in some way, to the depth of their symbolic, religious and cultural meaning.

That violence can all too easily spill out into violence in our own world. I'm coming to believe more and more that the harm caused by religion (in history and today) most often arises from ancient texts – i.e., myths – being read literally. The texts may be polytheistic or monotheistic; literal reading of Norse mythology is just as problematic as literal reading of Christian mythology.

Myths are not history. To read myths as history is to blind oneself to the deeper meanings inherent in the texts and to prevent ourselves from discovering our own personal meanings by engaging with the texts in a spiritual way. At least, in the words of Thelonious Monk, "that's the way I feel now."

This concludes the series on Ásatrú worldviews. I'd like to thank Bob for asking the questions, and I'd especially like to thank Haukur and Steven for their thoughtful and thought-provoking answers.

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