(The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989)
Vizzini: HE DIDN’T FALL? INCONCEIVABLE!
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
– The Princess Bride
When the Inconceivable Happens
In 2014, we marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To those who were born later, it is hard to convey how earth-shattering this was. The fall of “the Wall” was one of those events that profoundly changed my conception of the world. Growing up, as I did, in the Midwest in the 1980s, there were certain things I knew to be true:
- The United States was destined to reach the stars.
- The Soviet Union was the Evil Empire, with whom we would forever be locked in a stalemate.
- The Republican Party had the best plan for keeping America economically and militarily successful.
- I was safe in my home because the continental United States would never be attacked.
Each of these myths was ultimately undermined by an event in my lifetime:
- The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 began to undermine my faith in the myth of technological progress.
- The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR in 1989, breaking the stalemate between the USSR and the USA, which had previously been inconceivable because it implied nuclear war.
- The defeat of incumbent George Bush I in the 1992 election.
- The attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
Of course, each of these seemingly unprecedented events had their precedents. There were many disasters in the history of the U.S. space program, perhaps most notably Apollo 1 in 1967. The fall of the USSR, while apparently a surprise to the CIA, should not have been a surprise to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the history of empires. My own experience of the peaceful end of the Reagan era hardly compared with the Watergate scandal which my parents lived through. And the attack of the World Trade Center surely was no more shocking to me than Pearl Harbor was to my grandparents.
My parents’ generation experienced similar paradigm shattering experiences, including the U.S. defeat in Vietnam and the assassination of Kennedy. For my grandparents, it was the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the Holocaust. I think we all must grow up thinking that certain things could never happen … until they do. Thinking back, humanity seems to be plagued by events which, at the time, seemed inconceivable.
Many of these events caused people to question the existence of a just God, from the Black Death in the 14th century, which killed a third of Europe’s population and over half of the population in cities like Paris, Florence, and London, to the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which registered an 8.5-9.0 and killed people as they sat in church on the morning of All Saints’ Day, to the trench warfare of WWI, which created a generation of atheists.
On the flip side, there have been world-shattering changes for the better. For people in the South, living in the first half of the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement was probably inconceivable. My parents joined the Mormon church the same year that the church hierarchy decided to grant priesthood privileges to Black males (1978) … something which some people (including a previous Mormon prophet) had said would never happen. People are saying the same thing about Mormon women and the priesthood now, but “the times are a changing.” The success of the same-sex marriage rights movement is another recent example. I didn’t think I would live to see that particular historical arc curve toward justice, but I am glad I did.
The Myth That Things Will Always Be This Way
It is easy to live under the illusion that things are the way they always have been and they will always be the way they are now. But there really is no excuse for this kind of failure of imagination, at least among adults. This is true on both the personal level, as we contemplate our individual deaths, and on the collective level, as we contemplate the future of our society and our species.
Every adult person should realize that, one day, the United States will no longer exist. No doubt this would be considered unpatriotic heresy by many people, but it seems an inevitable conclusion looking at the political history of the world. What’s more, one day, human beings will no longer exist. … Think about that for a minute. Let it sink in. One day, no matter how much we rage against the dying of the light, we will not be.
This thought struck me as I watched the movie, Interstellar, for the first time. The movie is set in a near-future, where the earth can no longer sustain humanity. The population has been decimated by famine. The good old US of A still exists, but it is no longer what it once was. And a combination of blight and dust storms seems intent on wiping out what remains of a struggling humanity. We’ve seen many such post-apocalyptic cinematic visions in the past, from Road Warrior and Terminator to The Postman and The Book of Eli. But what was disturbing about Interstellar to me was not the changes, but the similarities, of the near-future depicted in the movie to the present day. Many post-apocalyptic stories describe a future that is unrecognizable to present-day Americans. But the future of Interstellar, a future of environmental disaster and only partial social collapse, seems very real.
It occurred to me that humanity’s paralysis over the impending environmental (and corresponding economic) collapse is a function of the psychological strength of the myth that things will always be the same. The sun always rises in the morning, and winter predictably (less predictably now) follows autumn which is followed by spring, and I, here in the U.S. go to work during the week, and rest on the weekend, and go on being a good consumer, largely unperturbed by war and famine and plague. So it’s easy to believe that things have always been this way and always will be …
… but they won’t.
It is likely that my children or grandchildren will live to see a day when our everyday experience, living in the United States today at the beginning of the 21st century, will be entirely foreign to the children being born at that time. This is not apocalyptic catastrophizing. It is simply a recognition that things will not always be as they are. And I think realizing this may be the first step toward making the system-level changes which are needed to address the environmental disaster which is already happening.
Certain things which we take as inevitable … things like capitalism, for example … are not inevitable. As Naomi Kline explains in her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, our economic system and life on earth are incompatible. Our economic system demands unfettered growth of consumption, but our survival and that of many other species requires a contraction of humanity’s growth and consumption. One of these must give way. Our choice, according to Kline, is to fundamentally change our economic system, or to allow nature to change it for us. The first will be hard, but the second even harder. But it is possible: If “the Wall” can fall, then the “Invisible Hand” can be severed.
One way or another, capitalism — at least capitalism as we know it, built on a model of infinite growth — will no longer be. My hope, is that we humans are around to see that day, and that the demise of this particular economic system does not correspond with the demise of our species. What we need is the courage to imagine a different future — the courage to imagine both a future where we have committed collective suicide through our desecration of the environment and a better future where we have escaped that fate by creating a new kind of society.
Paganism: A Religion of the Imagination
Where does Paganism come in? Well, if our problem is really a failure of imagination, then Paganism is uniquely suited to the task. Imagination is at the core of the Neo-Pagan paradigm. Reconstructing an ancient pagan past requires imagination, as much as it does scholarship. And much of the Neo-Pagan revival was inspired by fantasy. Dion Fortune’s fiction was an important influence on British Traditional Wicca, as was Robert Graves’ White Goddess (which is a work of imagination in the guise of philology). The American Neo-Pagan revival was also inspired by works of imagination, like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.
The early founders of the Neo-Pagan religions drew from myriad sources for inspiration – both ancient and modern – and where gaps existed, they improvised – following Monique Wittig’s injunction to “Make an effort to remember. Or failing that, invent.” Later, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods may have played a role in the growth of deity-centered Polytheism. More recently we have seen the emergence of so-called “pop-culture Paganism,” which includes the worship of comic book and movie characters.
Imagination has been long been denigrated as mere fancy in our post-Enlightenment culture. But imagination is more than fancy. As Sabina Magliocco explains in Witching Culture (2004), imagination refers to “a broad spectrum of thought processes, from memory to creative problem-solving to artistic expression, that rely primarily on internal imaging, rather than on discursive verbal expression or lineal logic.” She argues that rather than being irrational, “the imagination possesses its own internal logic that complements or enhances linear thought.” It is this part of ourselves which is awakened by Pagan ritual and magic. And it is to this part of ourselves which me must look to begin the transformation of our society. As Lawrence of Arabia wrote:
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
We Pagans are uniquely capable of imagining things being different than they are. After all, we are Pagans in (predominately) Christian America! (or, as the case may be, the increasingly secular English-speaking world) More than any other religious group in the West, perhaps, Pagans can imaginatively “remember” a time when Christianity was not the dominant mode of religious discourse. And we can imagine a future which is not only post-Christian, but post-monotheistic. And to the extent that our pathological relationship with the environment is bound up with a monotheistic paradigm, we are uniquely situated to help imagine a society which has a radically different relationship with the environment.
Indeed, much of Pagan ritual and practice is designed to help us realize just that possibility. Starhawk calls this the “radical imagination,” which she describes as “refusing to accept the dominators’ picture of the world”:
“All war is first waged in the imagination, first conducted to limit our dreams and visions, to make us accept within ourselves its terms, to believe that our only choices are those it lays before us. If we let the terms of force describe the terrain of our battle, we will lose. But if we hold to the power of our visions, our heartbeats, our imagination, we can fight on our own turf, which is the landscape of consciousness. There, the enemy cannot help but transform.”
(The Fifth Sacred Thing)
We can lead the way in effecting this paradigm shift away from from a mode of consciousness which is linear, atomistic and disenchanted — which lies at the root of all of these failed systems — to one that is cyclical, interconnected and re-enchanted. One way we do that is through rituals which connect us to nature, and by creating new myths (like the myth of Gaia).
Imagination gets a bad rap in our contemporary scientistic culture, which fetishizes objectivity and rationality and denigrates subjectivity and non-rational ways of knowing. But imagination has been behind every major revolution in human history, whether technological, social, or religious. The environmental crisis is a result of a failure of imagination — a failure to imagine the disastrous consequences of our current economic system and a failure to imagine that our economic system could be different. What we need is the courage and creative resources to imagine things can be different, and Paganism can help us fight that future by imagining new possibilities … and then creating them.
Come Dreamers of Day, come and act your dreams with open eyes.
John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.
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