You keep using those words…

Before I wrangle with today’s topic, let me join with others in expressing my joy that the Supreme Court of the United States has struck down the last ban against same-sex marriage and ruled that it is legal throughout the land. Let me join also with PSVL and others in saying that the struggle for marriage equality is by no means over: Celebrate today (and this weekend, if there’s a Pride festival in your area), and then let’s work on extending the right to legal marriage to people who don’t identify as either male or female, and then to people who wish to make marriage bonds involving more than two partners.

That said, today is another occasion when I am brought up short by the assigned topic of the meme. I am not really sure what is meant, so let me quote the meme and try to unpack my sense of the words:
Mysticism and Philosophy – Beliefs in truths that are believed to be intuitive or above normal understanding, as well as beliefs that are rooted in rational investigation and knowledge and how they work together. (transcendental/intuitive vs scientific/historic/practical).

The first thing that occurs to me is that there are some assumptions there about religion in general that relate specifically to the status of monotheistic religion in Western societies since the so-called Enlightenment, that is, since the scientific method began effectively to challenge the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. The idea that there is a conflict or a dichotomy between science and religion would probably have baffled medieval theologians and ancient pagan philosophers alike.

The second thing that occurs to me is that “mysticism” and “philosophy” are both words and concepts that had their origin in pagan, polytheist cultures, specifically that of Greece, and that the meanings of those words have diverged greatly from their original import in the dialects of ancient Greek. Like light passing through a prism and being bent into colors, a good many religious and philosophical ideas have passed through the prism of Christian re-interpretation and cannot easily be seen except as colored by centuries of Christian usage.

I know just enough about philosophy to know that, as Lord Peter Wimsey said of himself, I have not the philosophic mind. But I can speak a little of mysticism, perhaps, and so I shall.

To most people nowadays, the word “mystic” means someone who has had a sort of experience of the Divine which is not easily talked about, if at all, and which seems or sounds a bit like a warm, bright, fuzzy feeling about the goodness and oneness of the All. In various schools and eras of Christian theology, mysticism might mean a dangerous tendency to over-emotionalism, found especially in pious women, or a level of experiencing reality, a participating in heavenly reality during earthly life, or a specific stage in a carefully laid out program of spiritual progress that was presumed to be universal. But in the ancient Mediterranean world, a mystic was simply a person who had undergone a Mystery. You could be initiated into the Mysteries of Demeter at Eleusis, or into the Mysteries of Mithras if you were a man, or into other mysteries, lesser known. The Easter liturgies of the Church in Jerusalem in the fourth century C.E. are recognizably a mystery initiation in their structure: The newbie Christians are exposed to lights, songs, symbols, tableaux that are only explained later, in the light of day, over the course of Eastertide, and they partake for the first time of the holy meal that gives communion with the Lord. Mysteries were everywhere, and like Muslims on hajj, people gained initiation and generally just went back to their ordinary lives, but changed.

In pagan and polytheist traditions, there need be no conflict between religion and science, nor between mysticism and philosophy. There were mystics among the philosophers, philosophers among the mystics. We don’t have to give up our day jobs, stop watching all our favorite tv shows, and retire to a cave in order to be devout worshippers of the gods, nor do we have to turn off our critical minds, refuse to vote or vote a certain ticket, or try to resurrect a long-dead culture. We can enter the Mysteries of the Gods and see what is shown us and then go back to our ordinary lives, just as Hadrian and Antinous were initiates at Eleusis and then went back to being Emperor and favorite, friends and lovers.


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Writer, musician, polytheist, and friend of birds. I like science fiction, fantasy, and superheroes a lot.

One thought on “You keep using those words…”

  1. Indeed…this is definitely one place where the cracks in the meme are really showing. But you’ve done well in laying out what those cracks are, and allowing some light (if you’ll excuse my extension of your conceit) to come through them all the same. 😉


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