Monday, April 03, 2006

Ukraine Appears in NPR Program Speaking of Faith

This week on NPR's Speaking of Faith program is a conversation with Adrian Ivakhiv, a professor of environmental studies who is Ukrainian-Canadian that you can listen to here. Though the program is focused on a discussion about the persistence and spread of paganism and neopaganism in the world today in general, he talks a bit about Ukraine and its pagan heritage.

From the site's description:
An environmentalist who pursued the ecological impulse of Paganism, from its ancient roots to its modern revival in Europe and North America, discusses his observations about the spirit of Paganism and its influence on everyday Western culture — and even on old-time religion.

Ivakhiv is assistant professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont and author of Claiming Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Politics at Glastonbury and Sedona.
This is great to my mind for two reasons:

1) Ukraine gets mentioned in mainstream media in a positive light (insofar as you find a revival of paganism positive, I suppose);

2) My daughter Julija was given a Latvian pagan "baptism." Zinta, her mama, was never baptized Xtian and comes from a family that has been extremely active in the neopagan movement in the Latvian world. Hence, there was no talk of original sin nor of a vengeful God that one must fear at Julija's baptism; rather, there was talk of a beautiful, creative new life entering the world and of a benevolent, universal energy or God. Thus, it was not really a "baptism" (no washing away of sin) but a presentation to Julija of the community that will nourish and nurture her, and a presentation to the community of the new life--Julija--within it.

All of which are elements, no doubt, of Xtian baptism as well, which I mention in all fairness. . .

(I myself am not a complete adherent of Zinta's neopagan beliefs, as I have for over ten years been an avowed Zen Buddhist; however, insofar as one's neopaganism leads one to believe in a benevolent life force and the notion that all things are connected so that it is necessary to seek harmony and peace with all human
(not just fellow co-religionists and co-nationals) as well as nonhuman Others, I am quite sympathetic. And the distinction between a presentation (of an already beautiful baby) and a baptism (washing of sin) is to me very important. . .)

It is great that NPR did a program that treats modern neopaganism as serious and real thing; there is a great deal of creativity and fulfillment for many in the rebirth of paganism, though there are problems within the movement itself. . . For example, the RUNVira of Ukraine promote an ideology of xenophobic nationalism and hatred mixed in with their paganism (for them, Xtianity came as an imposition of northern, proto-Russian East Slavs upon southern, proto-Ukrainian East Slavs, and Jews are a foreign scourge from which Ukraine must be purified in order that Ukrainians can reclaim their ancient faith in full, blah, blah, blah).

Such are not the beliefs of every, contemporary neopagan. Though in the mid-XXth century much neopaganism was caught up with fascism, xenophobic nationalism, and anti-Semtitism, most of the neopaganism practiced in Europe and America today is caught up with countercultural currents that emphasize harmony with nature, human and nonhuman alike--and hopefully, this spirit will influence the all-too-prevalent xenophobia of far too many neopagans in Eastern European countries as well. But the point is , xenophobia and anti-Semitism are not products of the faith in itself.

And one further point: In countries like Latvia, which were among the last nations to be Xtianized in Europe, there is something of an unbroken stream between past and present in terms of its paganism. That is, there are families and individuals who never were baptized and who never ceased to practice and follow some of their people's pre-Xtian ways--and this is added on top of the fact that so many elements of pagan belief and practice already penetrated the later Christian and then modern cultures of most European countries, including the ones that were more thoroughly Christianized or that were less conducive to the incorporation of pagan elements into Xtianity than those countries whose form of Christianity was Eastern Rite. Thus, the "neo" side of their paganism is not all that new or reinvented (though in many respects, it most certainly is).

Update: After listening to the show again, here are 4 things I found important about what Ivakhiv said:

1) Though in the show he did not delve into this matter more than just asserting that a distinction exists, Ivakhiv did say that one should not conflate New Age with sincere neopaganism (perhaps he talked more about this distinction in segments of his interview with the show's producer that did not make it into the show; I certainly would like to hear more on this issue!).

2) He addressed what to his mind (and I agree with him) draws many people to this form of spiritual practice; here's the gist of what he said
as filtered though my way of putting it:

a) A desire to erase the modern seperation between a religion and a way of life, or to put it positively, a desire for an integrated way of life and religion that is more consciously founded upon harmonious relations with nature and society (which is also the reason, btw, that many people, including myself, find Buddhism appealing);

b) A desire for a religious practice that is more firmly rooted in performance and participation (i.e., egalitarianism, though he did not say it), symoblism and music, rather than guided contemplation and prayer alone.

3) He mentioned the sediment of paganism buried within Christian practices and briefly mentioned how a dual kind of faith has evolved in many Eastern European countries such as Ukraine, whereby paganism has remained a vital force even within Christianity (though, I would add and doubt he would disagree, often not recognized thusly).

4) He criticizes RUNVira and other neopagan organizations in Ukraine, and by extension elsewhere, for their xenophobic nationalism, while mentioning what he finds positive about their beliefs.

Final Update:

In all fairness, I feel I should mention here that all I said above about what can be found redeeming in some people’s approaches to paganism can also be found redeeming about some people’s approach to Xtianity.

I have met numerous folks and have friends for whom Xtianity is a message of universal love (not merely of co-religionists and co-nationals) and of real care and stewardship of the Earth. For a great example of an American Xtian of this variety, one should look to the prose and poetry of Wendell Berry, one of contemporary America’s best critics, essayists and poets.

That is, the ideology of original sin and all the hellfire and damnation of a supposedly vengeful God is either a minor element of their beliefs, or even more adamantly for some friends, all that stuff is merely the ideology of the Old Testament that was Negated by the Teaching of Jesus, whose emphasis was love, harmony, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek. These are Christians whose beliefs I deeply respect.

My own adherence to Buddhism is rooted in my belief that Zen (of all the varieties of Buddhism) presents the universal message of all religion in its purest or most abstract form: the fact of our deep, mutual interdependence and the need to cultivate a peaceful and harmonious way of life within one’s self, and to cultivate this way among others. In Buddhism, there is no God in the sense of a creator God that carries out its Vengeance on feeble, sinning people; Buddha is not a God but the image of a perfected and happy one that we all should strive to become. And the most powerful thing about Zen among all religions is, to my mind, its prescription of a method and its traditions for reaching that harmonious place in thought and practice, body and mind.

After Buddhism would porbably come, for me, neopaganism of Zinta's or of others like her's sort.

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