Silence is Golden: The Challenge of Subjectivity in Pagan Thought

Paganism today is predicated on subjectivity. We believe in individual rather than communal truths - what is true for me may not be true for you, and vice versa. This subjectivity precludes Pagan evangelism, as the God that I worship may not be the God who is right for you. There are as many paths to the Divine as there are people - religion itself is subjective, it belongs to the person. There are both good and bad issues associated with such subjectivity. We are freer than our objective brethren, for objectivity is the "tendency to accept rules governing both behaviour and thought." [1] No one tells a Pagan how to believe or act, it is something each individual must find or decide for him/herself. It is this very freedom that is problematic for some. It is easier to think of oneself as contributing to mankind's store of knowledge and truth, of creating something that will be true long after we are gone. Human nature makes us long for the safety of the group, to identify with others and not to see ourselves as lone thinkers, thinking things only applicable to ourselves. Subjective knowledge cannot be handed down, cannot be added to by different people, and is essentially paradoxical. Such knowledge is mine alone, and yours alone, and even if our knowledge should conflict still our understanding is true for us. Pagans can believe 'ten impossible things before breakfast', and ten contradictory things too, for ours is a both/and mentality. Like the ancient Egyptians, we can believe that Ptah is the creator of all the Gods, but that Atum is as well. We can believe in the claims made by the Gods of all ages and races, even if they conflict. We are not bound by the rules that constrain other religious believers, the desire for order and objective truth. We hold to subjectivity, to the thinker and the thought rather than the abstract thought itself. Our truths are intimately related to our existence - without our existence as living beings those truths would not exist. We know that our truths are related to our selves, and have no need to prove what we believe. Claims by apologists for other religions of contradictions in Pagan thought, or requests for proofs, are simply irrelevant for us. They are working on the premise that objectivity is necessary, but we work on no such premise, to use Ludwig Wittgenstein's term, we are in different 'language games'. Perhaps we are simply more honest than those apologists. We cannot be subject to the attacks of atheists or those of other religions because they may not ask us to prove the objective truth of our beliefs. Other religions - notably Christianity - choose to take up the challenge and claim objective truth for their beliefs. Though they valiantly and often ably try to combat questioners on those grounds their attempt must fail. We cannot objectively prove the existence of Gods. That fact should not bother Pagans in the slightest, but must cause difficulties for Christians. They have claimed objective truth for their beliefs, but in so doing have opened up the possibility that all of them may be wrong, and, worse, have forced themselves to engage in an endless procession of battles for their faith. We, who claim no objective truth, can admit with the Christian philosopher Kierkegaard that "the truth is objectively a paradox...[it has] objective uncertainty." [2]

Our embrace of the subjective forces us to take a good look at ourselves and the world. Man has attempted to see the world in an objective, logical way, and has confined nature with the instrument of objectivity, language. Language is inherently an objective tool, it cannot express the differences between like things, and it shows the attempt of man to control and confine the world about him. Perhaps we, like Sartre's young hero in Nausea, should try to escape language: "I couldn't remember it was a root any more. Words had vanished, and with them the meanings of things, the way things are to be used, the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface." [3] Language forces us to see the world through a barrier, to believe that the essence of something can be captured in its definition. Language wraps us away from contact with the Divine, with the world, even with our selves. Everything comes to us filtered through words, and definitions. Can you imagine a word without a definition? A word which simply relates what you see, do or feel without providing explanations or forcing limitations or generalisations on what you do? I can think of only one such word, "canny". In the area I come from (Newcastle, England) this word can mean anything from 'quite nice' to being the highest compliment anyone can bestow. It is one of those words where people 'know what you mean', even if you cannot explain it, because it is a name for a concept, not a description of that concept. It, too, is a highly subjective term, because of its range of meanings both in general usage, but also in the individual. This is the only word I can recall which escapes the normal point of language - to define, to dissect what we see, to put a barrier between us and the world. If we are subjective thinkers, our use of language becomes suspect. Language makes existence itself superfluous, for a thing to exist adds nothing to the definition of that thing. Language emphasises thought and abstraction - the very opposite to our subjective, person-related beliefs. It is an unsuitable vehicle for our understanding of the Divine, or anything else, because it does not recognise nor take into account the individuality of everything, nor its existence. "No one could deduce from its description that there is a world, or what the world must contain, or that the description is true." [4] Language itself, the definitions it imposes, is inadequate to the description of the world and of the sacred. When we speak or write we must be aware of the limitations of language. There is a fundamental difference between something in itself and our definition of it - though we burn a book, the essence of the book is not destroyed. Likewise we can identify something as a tree, but that does not describe the tree we see. If we believe that our words can truly describe reality, then we fall into the objectivist trap once more. Most importantly, in our faith, our words to describe the sacred are inadequate, because faith is a subjective connection to the Divine and cannot be described by generalist language. Pagans today face problems in that our faith follows the ancient subjectivist, both/and model, but all of us have been brought up in the Judaeo-Christian objectivist either/or model. Whereas in ancient times language was used in a symbolic manner, we now see

language as defining and expressing a logical and ordered world. To see language so is to fall into objectivity, which is both alien to the world, and raises immense problems for our faith. If we are to believe in a personal Divine, if we are to believe in many paths to God, if we are to accept the beliefs of many religions both ancient and modern, then we cannot accept such objectivity. We must avoid this pitfall, and view language as at best a flawed method of understanding the world, and at worst as an actual hindrance. Now, evidently we cannot do without language altogether - this would be a short essay indeed if that were so! Language has its use. The point at which language becomes so severe a hindrance as to be rejected, is in communion with the sacred. We must resist the urge to catalogue and dissect our beliefs, to form them into a consistent theory without paradoxes or contradictions - we must not objectify that which is inherently subjective. Our use of language, being as it is general and logical, is a barrier to subjective understanding of the sacred. To use language in a state of communion is to attempt to rationalise the experience, to take it out of the realm of the personal and into the public domain. This effort is both needless and dangerous. Let us keep the sacred personal, leave it related to us and us alone, rather than spreading it heedlessly to the world at large. After all, if that which is subjective is forced to become objective, then most of its meaning will be lost. You cannot take that which belongs to and is a part of your self, and give it to someone else, without its sacred character becoming flawed. So it is with the use of language in divine encounters. "Silence is golden, but my eyes still see..." [5]

Footnotes
1 Warnock, Mary Existentialism (Oxford University Press, 1970) p8 2 Kierkegaard, Soren Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Oxford University Press, 1941) p183 3 Sartre, Jean-Paul Nausea (New Directions, 1975) tr. Lloyd Alexander pp170-1 4 Danto, Arthur C Sartre (Fontana Modern Masters 2nd Ed, 1985) p92 5 Excerpt from the song "Silence is Golden" by B. Gaudio and B. Crewe

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Special offer for students: Only $4.99/month.

Master your semester with Scribd & The New York Times

Cancel anytime.