Monday, October 5, 2009

Moderation in All Things...

I have a friend's blog whom I follow because of the scholarship, complexity and strength of his views and writing ability. His blog is "A Heathen's Day" at . He is Heathen (think Norse Gods and Goddesses), a proactive polytheist and a deep scholar. You may agree with him fervently, you may disagree with him violently, but it's impossible to be indifferent around him.
In one of his latest posts, Trying to Understand Extremism
(Monday, October 05, 2009, Author: Hrafnkell Haraldsson) he discusses extremism verses moderation. It got some interesting thoughts going in my head...I have spent many, many long hours struggling with the conundrum of extremism - particularly of the Christian variety.

Being a moderate - probably liberal and with a part of my path that is pagan - Christian, I have a great deal of pain in my heart over the actions of my - *sigh* - idiot brothers and sisters over in the right wingnut corner who are making life miserable for the rest of us. What drives a person to the point that they cannot see the middle of the road? Cannot walk a mile in another's shoes? Cannot see a much wider and deeper world than the narrow range they permit themselves?

Paradigms, schema...let me belabor this for a minute. A schema is a psychology term that defines - in lay person's speak - the way the human brain seems to be inclined to create frame works for organizing information. This is useful because it lets us organize information quickly based on things we have already learned. We all do it to greater and lesser degrees, beginning from infancy on up. A child is informed that the big shaggy four footed tail wagging thing that just slobbered all over him is a "dog". He repeats the word several times, in reference to other four footed tailed beings of varying shapes and sizes and is praised for remembering that they are doggys. He has a "Schema" for the concept of "dog". Then he goes out to his Uncle's farm, and there on the other side of the fence is the biggest four footed, tailed thing he has seen so far in his life - however, he has looked it over, it has four legs, yup, there's the wagging thing on the back end, and he proudly proclaims "doggy!" No, he is told to his shock and dismay! Not doggy...cow. Uh oh, no praise forth coming this time. He must form a new schema that is "not Doggy", a "cow" schema.
When you are three, this is stressful! This is huge! But you get there..."Cow!" you proudly proclaim! Praise and re-enforcement fallow. All good. At which point, your uncle comes down the field RIDING on one of the darn things! WOW! But you are good. You have your new box labeled "cow". Four legs, tail, can handle this. So you point, and proudly say "Cow!" At which point, you are told, no dear...horsie. At which point, being three, and discovering the world is MUCH bigger than you ever thought, you have hit your expiration date, you melt down and must be consoled with ice cream!!!
Ok...humorous way of looking at it...but lets look at it in terms of a larger picture. Schema are ways of learning patterns. When the pattern does not fit, it causes stress. Fear. Anxiety. Probably has a good evolutionary basis - if the pattern didn't fit, it could be dangerous. Monotheists have a schema for one thing and one thing only. One deity. The penalty for transgressing that schema is far far worse than missing out on an ice cream cone. Aside from theological teachings that include scary things like "hell" as a consequence of stepping outside the schema, the pattern, the box; there is also the fear of rejection by ones community,the fear of getting it wrong, the stress of being outside the pattern, the safe place, the herd, the pack. Also another good survival point. However, schemas can influence and hamper the processing of new information. Hardened, limiting patterns of thinking give rise to limited or biased discourses and prejudices. A polytheist, that has a schema for varied views and multiple deities, has built into the very wiring of his or her schema a flexibility that a bred to the bone monotheist does not. A deeply conservative, right wing extremest has schemas set in concrete, and to set one foot outside them is terrifying. Fear breads hate and anger - hate and anger breed horrors. Everyone I have ever spoken with, or whose written account of their change of paths has at one time or another felt soul deep terror as the foundational schemas of their lives crumbled. I am one of them.

I spent two years consciously tearing my world views a part, struggling for identity, for understanding, fighting free of the schemas I was raised in - brainwashed in. It was a rich, holy time, a transformative time. However, since I was working my way from far extreme right wing Christianity, it was also terrifying. If you wish to read a Conservative Christian monotheists journey to polytheism and goddess worship as an example, may I recommend "Dance of the Dissident Daughter" by Sue Monk Kidd. She was a successful conservative Baptist women's author writing devotional works, when one shattering moment tore apart the foundation of her world...and she painfully left the narrow confines of her beliefs, her schemas, to seek divinity else where, in Goddesses and in the pagan roots of the world. She in effect rebuilt her schemas. And she paid dearly - she lost her career - at the time - her community turned on her, and her marriage was rocked to the ground. Small wonder so many of us take the safe road, the patterns given to us, seeking safety in extremism. See, if we are a-l-l the way over here, in the extreme corner here, then we are safe. If we are near the middle, the line, the dangerous edge, where the catalysts of change lurk, we might lose our way, our identity, our schema. When I am not actively struggling with the desire to wring my idiotic extremist Christian bretherens necks for being so narrow, prejudicial and hateful, I can feel pity for them, and sorrow for the trap they are in, for the fear they feel, for the narrow prison of their schemas. Fear becomes anger - because it is more empowering to feel anger than fear, anger and rage become hate, and with hate they justify their actions...and at the bottom of it all is a three year old yearning to get it right, to feel safe, to have boundaries without all that stress of dealing with change.
And nothing is more certain in this world than that it is not a favorite song writer of mine says "The only gospel that I know is things are gonna change" (Wishing Chair - Kiya Heartwood "Fiddlin' On") Moderates have more flexibility built into their schemas. They weather change better. They see further and walk better for being able to envision someone else's views.
I always try to remember when I encounter an extremist - which living in the Bible Belt south as I do, that extremist is 99 times out of a hundred is going to be a right wing Christian - that there but for grace go I...and that fear and rigidity are the driving forces underneath their actions. It's not always possible to do. But I try.


  1. Good post, Cameron. I see now where you were going, and well done. Change is scary. So is fear of hellfire. I think it says something for people who are willing to tackle their doubts head on and confront them rather than wilting back because of the old "but what if it's true..." line thrown out there so often by apologists. If it's only fear holding a person back, shouldn't that say something to them?

    But since the dawn of Jewish monotheism, people have been conditioned to look at "choice" as an evil. After all, that's what "heresy" means - making a choice where you're not supposed to make one - because you're supposed to walk on the straight and narrow and ignore other schemas. And always, if you're the least bit tempted, you're supposed to say, "But what if it's true..."

    Thinking is the worst thing a person can do, and I see you've done a lot of it. So a hearty congratulations to you and welcome to wonderful world of Heathen idolatry :) (I mean that in the nicest possible sense).

  2. The other thing I've noticed over the years about extremists is that they can swing over to the opposite extreme -- as if, once they do start to change their views, they aren't comfortable in the flexible middle but need to be at a polar extreme. So they go just as far the other way! I think this need for extremism is really a kind of mental illness.

  3. So, to follow Debra, the path through in the middle would be the most dangerous of all. There we can be accused of fence straddling, of refusing to commit, and of becoming the target of both directions. Hence our lovely, duel path identity and our need to watch our backs constantly. And our joy in joining a church where the priest will share a bear over dinner on Friday night. And the relief of our own grove where we discard hierarchy and embrace mentorships, and acknowledge the divinity of all by calling each other “Lord” or “Lady” so-and-so at initiation rather than at a third degree.

    And so you and I, beloved, have torn our schemas to the ground, examining identity, spirituality, and such. And so we have built our lives anew, transformed, different. No wonder most folks run scared!

  4. I found you via A Heathen's Day. I did not find you via Dreamweaver whose blog I follow.
    How did that happen?
    Anyway, in my much more simplistic world view, fear is the root of all evil and I don't have the cure.
    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this.

  5. I found your blog through Heathen's Day, too! Thanks for a beautifully written and very thought-provoking post. I had never thought of extremism in that way, but I find it very helpful in understanding why extremists act as they do, and what motivates them to make such soul-crushing choices. I once lived among Christian extremists, as well, and it struck me at the time what a constant struggle it was for them to keep their narrow, rigid little world intact.

  6. Wow...thanks to one and all for wonderful comments. Yes, Hraf, I have spent A LOT of time - years - on deconstructing and reconstructing identity, belief structures, paths and so on! I have often wondered how I got where I am, when the odds were so strongly against my being here - I was raised in a VERY conservative reformed Presbyterian denomination, attended Christian school my whole childhood and teenage years, and my family is deeply conservative still. I started out as nauseatingly right wing as the rest of them (particularly as a teenager - is there anything more annoying than an earnest teenage evangelist? Ugh!) And yet...and yet I look back and can see little things - tiny infinitesimal things that even then were indicative of the fact that I really wasn't "one of them". I think that in the long run, perhaps the pivotal point that saved me from a much more shallow obnoxious life was that I was a voracious reader and was reading stuff that was outside the box even back in grammar school. I was awake, so to speak. My brain got switched on at an early age, and once that happens, short of spiritual, intellectual suicide, no one can ever go back. Thanks for the welcome! LOL! I think the thing that you say so often about cultic acts makes so much sense...even when I was still back in my conservative days, I saw my life as a Christian to be based on actions, not on words and theology. So I suppose I have been there all along! It’s what I love about being Episcopagan...the act of what we do. It fits.

  7. Debra, good point - and I direct you to Hraf's great post that started all this. There are extremists of all shapes, sizes and flavors. An extreme liberal can be just as obnoxious as the other end. The key word is "extreme". Anything carried to an unhealthy extreme can become exceedingly unhealthy. Very good point. The Political Religious Right gets picked on the most because they are the ones currently making the most waves, but their opposite number can be almost as scary!

  8. Celestite, welcome - there is one cure for fear that I know of, though their may be others; turn and face it. Walk into it. Don't yield to the comfort of transforming it to anger, or self righteousness or running from it or ignoring it. In Frank Hubert's great Sci-Fi master piece "Dune" there is a litany -

    "I must not fear.
    Fear is the mind-killer.
    Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
    I will face my fear.
    I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
    And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
    Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
    Only I will remain."

    That has been my best path for dealing with fear. Have I always been consistent at it? I have run the opposite way, I have lied to myself, I have rationalized, gotten angry...and all those paths ultimately lead me back to the path I should always follow to begin with - face fear, don't deny it, go through it. This becomes a transformative act and the on other side of fear there is freedom from what we fear, the freedom to act, and life itself. It ain't easy!

  9. N.V., glad you found me - that is a very observant point. The constant struggle to MAKE the world conform to a narrow rigid mold is exhausting, and wasteful of human energy and heart and soul. And yet for them, that first step to say "Maybe..." can become literally unthinkable. It's why I struggle to maintain charity and compassion for those who are in the monkey trap, and will not open their paw and let go of the shiny object, even to save their lives and their sanity. Here again, am I consistent at this? Nope. I am, thank God, only human, and there are days when I get into a rage over the destruction and pain caused by extremists. But I try not to let that anger rule my life. That’s what moderation is all about.

  10. Dreamweaver, I love you! Sometimes I look at the craziness of our lives, and the convolutions we go through to be who and what we are and wonder if we have lost our minds...and then you post a comment like that, and I know that we are right where we need to be, being who and what we are suppose to be and true to our inner selves! I love you...and I remember that all these twisty turns are simply the Labyrinth doubling back on it's self and I know I am on the right path!

  11. I wish to add one more thought here...One of my dearest friends, Starchild, grew up with me during those painful years of earnest adolesence in the conservative church and school. She, being far wiser than I, got out much sooner. This put us subtly at odds for years. We remained close, but, there was always this low level tension, like a sublinminal hum between us, as she grew beyond the narrow confines of our rigid childhood world and I remained in it. And as the years passed, and it became harder and harder and HARDER to be a nice straight consevative Christian housewife,I hid that conflict, not just from her, but from the world. She and I would talk on the phone...and I would pay lip service to this almighty image I was trying to maintain, and probably causing her a great deal of stress and pain, which she dealt with gracefully and with love, always. And I would hang up the phone, hating myself, and not even understanding why. Inside, during those years, as I struggled alone in my little tiny closet, I was moving to an ultimate moment of "no more!" that I don't think even she saw coming. I hid too successfully. Coming out as gay to her was the shattering of the dam of silence and secrecy...and ever since I have been trying to live more honorably and more openly as who and what I am, orientation, gender, faith and otherwise (with some common sense attached to that - being gaybashed into the ground is something I do try to avoid in this area!) Starchild is to be honored for her faithful friendship, her honest ethical life, her courage in taking that life and being authentic and for loving me always, even when sometimes I could not love myself. Reparation should always be made for wrongs done...for the lie I tried to live, and the strain of it on our friendship, for not being brave enough to trust and be true to you as you were to me, I ask your forgiveness, my friend. And thank you for who and what you are. I doubt I would be who and what I am today if you were not in my life. Blessed be, dear friend! Love you, always!

  12. You have made many noteworthy points.

    Grace, it is a fact that some Christian right wing extremists turn to paganism, only to become another kind of extremist.

    There is this former Catholic woman (owner of "Twilight Falling", where I fiund some comments made by you), who took to heathenism, only to become an intolerant vegan. Today, she goes about berating any pagan who has chosen to eat meat.

    She has recently gone to the extreme of saying, that instead of defining herself as a person who has embraced the many gods of polytheism, she prefers calling herself a "social activist" who promotes veganism, and that veganism is the ONLY religion she knows.

    It was this same woman, who was responsible for starting the long debate over diet, for Hrafnkell's post "Moderation vs. Extremism".

  13. Yes, social activism can become a kind of very difficult intolerance. I am all for social else except through people willing to do so, and voting, does anything ever change...but the strength of conviction that can lead someone to take a strong moral stand is also what can lead to this kind of extremism. It’s like they are flip sides of the same coin, the strength and weakness of one trait. When someone has the strength of will to take a stand, it can become all pervasive. And, a new paradigm or schema is a compelling one in an individual’s life. I followed some of the debate you mentioned...It was very interesting to watch two such strong willed personalities go at it so passionately (immoveable object vs. irresistible force - tickets one day only, get your popcorn here! LOL!)! I think what impressed me is that even though they debated so intently, Hraf still welcomes her to his blog. And she still comes. That’s one thing that makes the situation a little bit different from the right wing Christian extremism - dialogue, give and take is still being maintained, despite sometimes even harsh words. It’s when dialogue stops that trouble begins. It's one of the things about Hraf's blog I wish to patiently welcome any and all debate and thought on my blog. (That’s not to say I won't moderate comments - even Hraf has been known to give up and delete remarks. But I would prefer to use that as a last resort.) Thanks for posting. I am glad to see you - I enjoy your well thought out comments on A Heathens’ Day. And should the individual you speak of swing by to check out my blog, she will be welcome too. I admire her courage and stubborn will.

  14. As Cheeks rightly reminded us, “it is a fact that some Christian right wing extremists turn to paganism, only to become another kind of extremist.”

    While I have no intention of taking another blogger to task her for their personal beliefs, I agree that extremism, in whatever flavor, can be incredibly damaging. I’m always amazed that a person far to one side of a schema can swing so far into opposite direction and still remain, in essence, unchanged as they continue to evangelize regardless of where they happen to land.

    I suppose moderation is difficult because it does require so much of one’s self. One must be satisfied with grey areas, without absolutes, without the strict adherence to a belief system that promises safety. Carl Jung called it the process of individuation.
    I do like Cameron’s attitude. Discussion, conversation, respectful disagreement all lead to greater understanding. While I may never be vegan, Catholic, or Jewish, I can politely enter into a conversation that connects our souls across miles, years, and ideals. And I can become a better person as a result.

  15. I must confess, I am myself an extremist. I am extremely opposed to idiots and I consider stupidity a sin. Ignorance, however, is bliss, and that is why I should not read your blogs because then I could sit here in my little house and pretend that all the idiots died in the flood.

  16. Cameron, I couldn't agree more - it is a waste of heart and soul to engage in such extreme behavior. Good way of putting it. I greatly admire your attitude towards extremists. In my opinion, an attitude like yours is the best way of overcoming difficulties to do with extremism.
    I live in rural Ireland, and the extremists that I encounter around here are mostly extreme nationalists. They can be just as unwelcoming towards calm, open debate as for instance extreme Christians, but unlike extreme Christians, they don't preach. However, I think (read, hope) that the ideals of openness and respect for other opinions are coming to the forefront now, and that will be the single most helpful thing in healing old wounds and ancient grudges.

  17. I posted about Hraf's debate and Cameron's debate on my blog. You can read it here:

  18. Cameron, dear friend, you do me too much honor: my love for you was like duct tape, but yours for me was like superglue, even when you thought I was damned. Sure, I struggled to free myself from dogma, only to find myself running with enthusiasm out from the tiny closet of one belief system into the tiny closet of the next. Do I delude myself when I think that this was a search for The Truth? And is it possible to find such a diamond in the chaos of delusion and deception that our minds and cultures have created to comfort us? I grew weary of all dogmas and blind alleys of faith and became an agnostic, and recently an atheist. Meanwhile, I have witnessed your struggle to redefine yourself in the face of beliefs made untenable--a continuing evolution I see in the lines of your blog. You have not followed me; the cool, pragmatic balm my mind has found in the assurance that our "selves" or "souls" are constructs of matter, patterns of firing synapses in our nervous systems, that did not exist before we were born and will not survive the death of our bodies--this is not where your labyrinth has taken you. The path your neurons blaze for you is more colorful and dramatic; and who can blame you or your Lady for seeking solace in other worlds, when this one has treated you both so shabbily? Far be it from me...

    And so our paths still diverge, as they ever have; but your superglue love has never faltered, no matter how far apart we have been in body and mind. For that I am the richer, and so very grateful.

  19. Hi Cameron -- There's an Over the Top Award for you at my blog post of Oct 16th, if you want to come by and pick it up!