Monday, November 26, 2012

Social subsidiarity in Balinese society

As mentioned my son is learning about Bali in social studies.  The last post discussed the way that sacred space is woven into all aspects of the Balinese life-world.  This post will discuss social organization.

This gave me the chance to introduce my son to Aristotle's ideas of social structure, as well as to explain largely how the society works using subsidiarity as a principle, namely the idea of a larger order dependent on autonomous smaller orders for its existence.

In Bali, the two large orders are caste and town (Pura adat).  The castes follow standard Hindu rules, though due to sound shifts, V's are changed to W's (so Vishnu is called Wishnu, and the Vasya are the Weisya).

The costs and benefits of the Hindu caste system are too numerous to go into here.  Whole books could be written on the subject, but two points are worth noting.  First caste stands in the way of self-sufficiency.  Different kinds of labor are divided by caste such that one cannot achieve much without working with others of different castes.  Thus one important aspect is that the caste system trades independence for interdependence and thus ensures that society must always work together.  Instead of an undifferentiated mass of individuals as we are used to thinking of society in the West, Hindu society aggressively partitions society and apportions members of it with lots in life.  This may be explored in a future post.

However the major focus of this post will be the town.  As an economy that was up until very recently dependent on rice agriculture for survival, most Balinese come from an agricultural background.  Even today rice farming is a very important both economically and culturally to the island although tourism is the main industry on the island these days.  The primary form of farming is that of small rice paddies, periodically flooded based on water availability.  Water management is a central communal focus.

Family and Neighborhood

The fundamental unit in any society is the married household.  Married households are societies in miniature and they are the primary method of passing cultural expressions and values onto children.  As in most societies these are often multi-generational and there may be several generations living under one house.  However in general, only married child is allowed to stay in the home of the parents and inherit the living quarters.  Other sons must go out and build their own, while daughers move into their husbands houses upon marriage.

Each married household itself must belong to the banjar through the husband's membership.  The banjar is the smallest social/governmental unit in Balinese society, being similar to a neighborhood association but with a wider range of power and responsibilities than is seen in the West.  The Banjar is thus properly seen as an organ of government in Balinese society and a fundamentally democratic one (Bali is traditionally, like most Hindu societies, a monarchy but one with local democratic institutions).

The banjar thus constitutes the first of the fundamental public institutions of
Balinese society.

Farming Association and Water Management

The second fundamental institution is that of the Subak, or farming association.  The Subak is actually more akin to a water district, and the primary responsibility is to coordinate schedules for flooding the paddies so that there is enough water for every member.  Because there may be some distance between the paddy and dwelling, the subak and the banjar may not be coterminous.  A given banjar may consist of people in different subak2, while a given subak may consist of people in different banjar2.

One can see in this approach something akin to the guild system of Europe.   Here the various professional individuals work together to divide up scarce resources and ensure that everyone is productive.

The Subak and Banjar essentially form the warp and weft of village organization, and are woven into the municipal government.  These various villages would then form the kingdom of Bali which into historical times was a monarchy (and the royal family is still well respected and carries with them a great deal of moral authority, as far as I can tell).

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Sacred Space and Cosmology in Bali

Being in Jakarta (on the island of Java) right now, my oldest son is studying Bali in social studies.  The material he has been given is hopelessly confusing to folks who are not familiar with anthropology but fortunately I was able to help him make some sense of it.

I intend to publish two blog posts about my interpretations of what I have seen in his books.  These dovetail with a lot of my own anthropological studies and consequently it is important.  The first, this post, will be on sacred space and cosmology in Bali.  The second, to be written soon, will cover subsidiarity and family/town structure.

I write about these topics because I believe that they have a lot to teach modern mankind.  We have lost our sense of sacred space, and are isolated by servitude dressed up as freedom.  If we begin to understand our condition through the eyes of those who hold what we have lost, we can begin to rebuild.  It may not be along the lines of any specific group, but we can't start until we know what we are missing.

Unlike Islamic sacred cosmology which is global in scope and centered on Mecca everywhere, Balinese Hindu cosmology is local in scope and kept very close to the human experience.  In this way, it provides I think a very human and earthy sense of what has been lost.

One of the important foundational principles I have found over and over is the fact that in traditional cosmologies that horizontal space is isomorphic with vertical space.  This means that horizontal space models and vertical space models are often interchangeable.  As in the Vedic coronation ritual, this can be circular model, or as with the directional system of Bali it can be linear.

The Four Directions and the Center of the World

Balinese villages are laid out according to four directions which are not necessarily perpendicular.  These directions are defined rather by natural layout and sacred space.  The primary axis runs from the observer to the peak of Mount Agung, a stratovolcano and highest point on the island.  It also runs the other direction towards the sea.  This makes Mount Agung the directional pole, or center of the world to traditional Balinese society.

Mount Agung is also metaphorically and physically up, from the perspective of the village.  Not only is it a tall mountain peak but it is traditionally seen as the dwelling place of the gods, much like Mount Olympus in Greece.  Away from Mount Agung is the sea, which is seen as physically and metaphorically below the observer, and the dwelling place of the dead.  Thus the axis from Mount Agung to the sea is also the axis from the heavens to the realms under the waves and under the earth, and thus a vertical axis.    This is important in the Three Temples section below.

There are two other directions which are important in Balinese society:  East and West, which address the rising and setting of the sun.  These directions are not necessarily perpendicular (and in fact can be parallel to in rare cases) the main axis towards/away from Mount Agung.

The Three Temples

Every village has three temples attached to it, which make up a model of sacred space along three planes.  These correspond generally to a universal model generally, and an Indo-European spacial model specifically which is of course not surprising given the fact that it is fundamentally Hindu in outlook

The most important temple is the Pura Desa, or "Village Temple" which is located in the center of the town.  This is dedicated to Visnu, but spacially is positioned in the center of human activity, and therefore must be seen in two overlapping contexts.

The first such context is that this is the temple of the human domain, much like Midgard in Norse mythology.  This is on the horizontal plane, in the area of human activity, and it is worth noting that Visnu alone of the Hindu gods was assumed to have come to earth and lived life as a human twice, as King Rama of the Ramayana and Lord Krishna of the Mahabharata and the Krishnayana.  The connection that Vishnu has then with the human condition is different in quality and kind than the other main Hindu gods.  Therefore this has to be the first interpretation as to the place of the Pura Desa.

The second context however is that the center in Vedic ritual is associated with kingship and sovereignty.  This is true in both the Asvamedha and the Vedic coronation ritual.  It is worth noting that the Vedic Raj, or King was always from the warrior or Ksatrya caste, and also Vishnu, in both of his avatars, was a Ksatrya.  Thus the Pura Desa represents a point of social order, and the presence of the kingly influence, in Balinese village life.

The second type of temple is the Pura Dalem, or the temple to the dead, represented directly away from Mount Agung from the reference point of the village.  The temple of the dead is thus metaphorically below the village and thus corresponds to the underworld.  While Hinduism had, by historical times, moved away from the idea of an underworld of the dead and towards a system of reincarnation only broken by the self-deification that comes with identifying with the universal (the Upanishads say that the gods became gods through this process), this shows a trace of the older cosmology has not died away.  In Hinduism the underworld is also the world of the Asuras and hence a place of riches and gold, from which prosperity flows.  This leads to a central ambivalence towards the underworld found across the Indo-European world.  On one hand, it is a spooky place full of often hostile entities, but on the other it is the place from which all prosperity comes.  Certainly ritually this means that the dead in Balinese society dwell below the realm of human activity.

As a side note, outside of India and Hinduism, most Indo-European traditions had a great deal of variety regarding possible lives after death, and it is also possible that these were not seen as mutually exclusive, and that one might be reincarnated and at the same time spend an eternity in the realm of the dead.  This sort of ambiguity is most prevalent in Norse heathen religion, but is clearly present in Greek myth as well, and the Greeks had a very lively relationship with their dead.  Daniel Ogden has written a fair amount on that topic and I highly recommend his works on Greco-Roman necromancy in this context.

The final type of temple found in relation to every town is the Pura Puseh, which is located towards the center of the world and the dwelling place of the gods.  Thus it is metaphorically above the realm of human activity.  Here the divine ancestors and the gods are worshipped.

Overall these two aspects serve to orient village life in Bali around sacred space and cosmology.  In essence the sacred model of the world is forced into one's mind at every turn and it must be ever-present.

Improvised turkey stuffing

Right now I am living in Indonesia.  One thing about being overseas is the fact that it is not necessarily always easy to get all the same ingredients one is used to working with.  So today being thanksgiving I cooked a turkey.

No, I couldn't get all the stuff I would normally use for stuffing.  So I improvised.  And no, I didn't measure anything.

What did I add?

  • Day-old rice (this is what you'd make fried rice out of because freshly cooked rice gets too soggy)  How much?  Well I added what I had.
  • 2 Granny smith apples, diced
  • Lemon juice (1 1/2 lemons was arguably a little too much, so maybe one lemon next time I try to recreate this?)
  • Cashews.  No idea how much.  Maybe 100g?
  • Ginger root, just a bit
  • Soy sauce to taste
  • Tumeric leaves, 3 smallish ones
I tasted a little bit on the edge that was fully cooked and arguably a little more tart than I wanted but really quite tasty.

Tumeric is one of those things you can grow in pots indoors in the US if you can buy some fresh tumeric root at an Asian market.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Critical View of the Gay Rights Movement.

As time goes on I have become fairly disillusioned with the gay rights movement.  It isn't so much that I disagree on issues so much as I disagree on a vision of the society of the future and the overall trajectory our culture needs to take to survive what I see are coming crises.  Those of us who are traditionalists find it very hard to support a movement which is fundamentally hostile towards tradition generally, especially when this extends not only those traditions minimally necessary for their causes.  The failure to embrace traditions and traditionalist defences of their causes means that those of us who do feel there is a real need to retraditionalize and yet find through our traditions that we agree with the gay rights movement on some issues must choose between what we feel is a fair application of traditions in support of a group that would prefer that we don't exist, or fighting anti-traditional forces at an unacceptable human cost.

The problem with an anti-traditionalist view is that it fundamentally isolates people from eachother, destroys all sense of place, and thus stunts human flourishing.  There is a rising traditionalist movement both among the left and right of American politics, and I place my hope there instead of in the anti-traditionalist progressive wing.

The Traditionalist Defence of Same-Sex Marriage and Gay Rights Hostility

In the primary traditionalist view, marriage is about children as it is universally across cultures and history.  The basic issue anthropologically is that men and women are differently situated regarding reproduction and so societies are generally forced to choose between women bearing sole responsibility for childraising and creating a social and legal framework for sharing such support between men and women.  That social and legal framework is marriage and is more universally ritualized than is saying farewell to the dead.[1]

This view is echoed in Aristotle's "Politics" where he suggests that there are three layers to society, namely the individual, the family household, and the polis.  The household's main role is that of creating children and passing culture on to them so they can form households that are within the union of the polis.  Of course in addition, the household is an economic unit, and one which supports the elderly in most societies and times, but all of this is put in the primary service of the raising of children.

The family household is the bedrock of the state.  It provides a stable foundation for raising children and this also provides the basic unit of grass-roots culture of all sorts.  Strong families then produce productive citizens, and this is why Cicero said (in "The Republic") that one should not turn one's parents in to the state for crimes because the state needs strong families more than it needs criminal justice.

It is worth noting of course that neither Aristotle nor Cicero likely had any problem with male-male sex per se, and it isn't clear what Greek attitudes were towards female-female sex were, though there is some evidence for widespread occurrences of this in religious contexts in vase paintings and the fact that the religious organizations that gave rise to Sappho's erotic poetry were also found throughout the Greek world.  Of course the Greek world was full of rules regarding who could have sex with whom and what sorts of acts were acceptable, as are all cultures.

From this perspective then, marriage creates a family household with characteristics which make it uniquely qualified for childrearing.  These include essentially a form of corporate existence which can outlast the death of any single member without necessarily there being a loss of property, custodial rights and responsibilities to children, and the like.  But children are the future and they are the focus.

The decline of the American family then occurs through a series of stages including the rise of the ideal of an independent retirement, the shift in voting from per household to per adult.  As time goes on however, we have in my lifetime supplanted more and more of the traditional family structures with institutions, changing from neighborhoods and children playing together to factory farm day-care/preschool/public school systems chained together with ever-lengthening expectations of years that children shall go through that system.  And we expect schools to play ever-increasing roles in culture war issues and many of the huge battles over abstinence-only sex ed, and portraying homosexuality as normal in public schools is a result of this.  Add to this ever-increasing social services supplanting parent roles so both parents can work and the elderly can have an independent, if lonely, retirement in the name of not being a burden to anyone.  This decline of the family and replacing it with government institutions is very concerning and fortunately there is a small, growing traditionalist movement which is seeking to reverse this to some extent.  This includes a nacient domesticity movement as well as a general increase in multi-generational households particularly as immigrants come to the US.

From this perspective, same-sex marriage is not necessarily a bad thing.  It provides, for children who are in de facto same-sex households anyway, the same legal protections regarding continuity of their environment that those children have in opposite-sex households.  If marriage is about the children then the question of same-sex marriage needs to be about the impacts on the children not the impacts on the parents, and if marriage enables better support of the children, then we shouldn't disadvantage the children just because they are raised in a household where both main contributors are the same sex.

Such an argument has a potential to broaden the appeal of same-sex marriage as a cause but every time I have suggested it, I find myself under attack mostly from the very advocates of the cause I am suggesting could be furthered there.  It is hard to understand why advocates for a position would be actively hostile to people reaching out to others on behalf of that position, but I think the issue is that it is easy to see this as dangerously close, from their perspective, to the idea that marriage is about procreation.  I don't think it is a problem to suggest that marriage is about procreation cross-culturally, though, or that we are in a relatively unique period of history where a combination of factors are temporarily weakening that interest including the fact that we have had a huge social subsidy through fossil fuels which has largely fueled the modern age.

I think that these are almost undeniably true, and that as energy prices continue to rise many things we take for granted including the potential for an independent retirement for most people.  Our consumption of medical technology today is also unsustainable, as is the apparent middle-class boom in wealth caused by housing prices continuing to rise.[2]  The very things which enable us to see this as an issue today are not guaranteed to be around far into the future.  Consequently I think there is some wisdom in avoiding the arrogance which suggests that all previous generations have done things wrong.

The fact is, tradition is dynamic.  Aspects of tradition can be repurposed and traditional rites can change greatly in a short amount of time.[3]  The lack of a traditional framework in modern culture has a great deal of cost in terms of mental health.[1]  Consequently one of the promises of the movement to retraditionalize society and in particular the family is that this improves sustainability long-run.  Tradition thus doesn't necessarily mandate certain viewpoints, but instead provides a narrow rhetorical framework for arguing about them, for example making the children the focus of any debate on same-sex marriage.   The fact though is that while this is constraining it offers a sense of place and stability that is lost as tradition atrophies.  One major reason for the New Age movement may be a reaction to the loss of our vital traditions.

The failure to accept that people may embrace a traditionalist view of family and yet support same-sex marriage means that traditionalists such as myself find ourselves struggling on one hand for the idea that children need the support that marriage offers in same-sex households and also the fact that the proponents of same-sex marriage believe that tradition is what holds us back from social "progress."  But it is a funny sort of progress which uproots people from their towns, and weakens families, robbing people of a sense of place in the name of "freedom," and it is a funny sort of freedom that does not include a right to one's traditions.  I have even heard opponents to my views suggest that the sustainability issue isn't real because we can solve it by building large numbers of nuclear reactors.  Great, supporting same-sex marriage requires ensuring many more Chernobyls and Fukushimas.....  If that is the price, no thanks.

But I think we are offered here a false choice.  Another option is that we focus on reconnecting the family with the raising of children and the care of the elderly and worry less about the specific structures of other people's households in that area, and recognize that same-sex marriage may well be a way to help do this if the context is right.  The major problem is that non-traditionalists (which comprise the city folk, both right and left) tend to be hostile towards the role of marriage in raising kids.  There are a number of reasons for this, some more legitimate than others, but this is the backdrop under which this dialog occurs.

Saving marriage in its traditionalist sense does not necessarily mean banning same-sex marriage.  It does however mean that adult children should live near their parents to the extent possible, and that mutual support and assistance in raising future generations should be offered, but fighting for this means fighting against the tide on both sides of the political spectrum.

The Gay Rights Movement as Homophobic

The second major problem I see with the gay rights movement is that it is fundamentally homophobic insofar as gays and lesbians are treated as fundamentally other.  This sets up a sort of passive-aggressive acceptance of homosexuals on the basis that they will never quite match society's definitions of "normal."  The idea is that gays and lesbians must have equal rights because they do not conform to societal models of normality.  Because they are fundamentally other, they cannot be normalized, just accepted.  We will never see a market for a dyke barbie playset because, we are assured, homosexuals are a small minority for biological reasons.

This is not the only area of course where we see this sort of passive-aggressive acceptance of "the other."  It is common in race and gender as well.  For example, there is a significant gender disparity in medical textbooks on figures representing health and disease, with male figures more often representing health and female figures more often representing disease.[4]  One can find similar racial disparities in many areas.[5]  For example, Time Magazine darkened OJ Simpson's mug shot in the 1994 issue focusing on the murder of Nicole Simpson and OJ's arrest.  The subtle standards of normality are brutally pervasive and all rhetoric must be read in their context.

That context of normality in modern culture is defined by Disney movies for little girls, by Barbie and Ken, by romance movies generally, and by bridal magazines.  There are industries upon industries which make money essentially selling heterosexuality to young girls and young women.  Therefore heterosexuality is normal, and people who deviate from that are not.  The cultural argument then boils down to "are they bad?  Or is it that they can't help it?"  The basic assumptions accepted on both sides of the debate are deeply homophobic and seek to constraint as many people as possible to a life of exclusive heterosexuality, and in this context "gays are born that way" carries with it a subtext of "you aren't born that way, are you?"

Of course the reason is that once you reject this false choice, many more unpleasant questions start surfacing and the issue becomes very difficult to contain.  The idea that homosexual sex might actually be normal within limits for most people forces back the questions relating to marriage, why we fight against it so hard, and so forth.  There are however growing numbers of people (myself included) who reject sexual orientation labels because we see them as social control mechanisms, and this brings us back to the fundamental questions of same-sex marriage but from a viewpoint so far unlike what goes on in political discourse that it just can't be reconciled with either major camp.

It is as if our society presents us with two boxes, marked "gay" and "straight" and tells us to get in one and stay in it.  If we look around there is a small box hidden behind those two labelled "Bi" but anyone who goes in that box gets treated with suspicion by everyone else.  But the natural condition is not to choose any of the boxes.  Many societies have woven homosexual sex through their societal structures in various ways and therefore I conclude that virtually everyone is capable of having fulfilling sexual relationships with people both of the same sex and opposite.  This may feel intuitively wrong in our culture, but we cannot separate the industries and social forces which construct our taboos from those feelings.

I contend that until one moves beyond the general hostility towards homosexuality in our culture, a hostility which deeply pervades even the gay rights movement, we cannot really discuss on even terms the question of same-sex marriage, and once we do the issue will be so heavily transformed we will no longer be able to recognize it.  I think, however, if you separate the traditionalist framing of the issue from hostility towards homosexuality it makes more sense than the anti-traditionalist view.  The only question left is which direction to take it, while focusing on rebuilding the family as the bedrock cultural institution and taking back authority from the state to vest in the family.

Fleshing out a view of human sexuality which works from a cross-cultural and trans-historical perspective is very difficult.  However, I think it is clear generally that our views of sexuality and the biological nature of sexual orientation in our culture do not actually work when studying most cultures and times, particularly those cultures which have normalized significant same-sex sexual contact in some contexts.[6]


[1] Grimes, Ronald.  "Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage"

[2] Warren, Elizabeth.  "The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class"

[3]  Turner, Victor. "The Ritual Process."

[4] Davis-Floyd, Robbie.  "Birth as an American Rite of Passage, 2nd Edition"

[5]  One can see an argument that race provides a critical difference between Brandenburg v. Ohio and Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project on the question of when advocating to or on behalf of a terrorist organization is Constitutionally protected.

[6]  For example, the Sambia of New Guinea require that boys become men by fellating tribal elders, see note 1 above.  Also Aristotle discusses the use and limits of pederasty in ancient Athens while Plutarch practically calls this, along with wife-swapping, the backbone of Spartan society in "The Life of Lycurgus".  Note also that males having penetrative sex with male slaves was common in much of the ancient world.  The imposition of the Levitican prohibition by Christians in Late Antiquity was largely unusual at that time.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Meditations on Machinery

This is a response to Life Under Compulsion: The Billows Teaching Machine
which I felt was too long to put in the comments.  I highly recommend the entire Life Under Compulsion series at Front Porch Republic.

The first time I started to really question the machine it was on reading what is probably one of the greatest (and most unusual and underrated) pieces of feminist literature of all time:  "Birth as an American Rite of Passage" by Robbie Davis-Floyd, where she criticizes in great detail the Modernist concept of the body-as-machine (she is a major proponent of natural childbirth).  I began to slowly realize how fragile the basis of modernism was at that moment as I sought what would replace it.  Her book clearly is quite complementary to this essay here.

But then I kept noticing how this falls in place.  As far back as we can see, the body is seen as a universe in miniature.  If the universe is a machine, so is the body.  If the universe is like a tree, so is the body.  The metaphors are always the same.  This is why Plato's tripartite structure of the person relates to society, and by extension to the divine (leading to the idea of the Trinity rather directly, practically in Plato's time).  To the Platonists, the body was the universe, and the seven fold planetary bands of differentiation were present in the self as well as the world, as was the band of sameness (to borrow the model of Timaeus).  Interestingly this reduces astrology largely to a "science of synchronized clocks."  If the universe and the body are on some level the same, then we can deduce certain things about the body by looking to the movements of the planets.  The changes in the bands of difference in the world correspond with changes in the bands of difference in the self.

But then I read "The Sacred and the Profane" by Mircea Eliade, and noted that he pointed out the modernist secular view of the house is that it is a machine, and that this is removed from the traditional sacred nature of the dwelling, and I realized that Eliade was partly wrong.  The secular view of the house was still traditionally the body made large and the universe in miniature, just that everything is now a machine instead of a tree, or the sky.  This view of the world, society, and the self as mechanical systems is thus to a good part what is wrong with the world today.

So what should replace this "everything as machine" approach?  How do we move towards a more organic way of living? 

Readers will have their own ideas or perhaps will find them.  Personally I have come to enjoy a different model, that of "everything as ecosystem."  The human body is an ecosystem not only of cells but of various microbes, etc.  Many of the processes such as bone remodelling can be thought of not so much as rigidly mechanical but rather as ecological flows.  This works in part because just as in an ecosystem everything fills more than one function, this is true also in our bodies.  Bones for example, function as calcium reservoirs, structural supports, energy storage areas, and immune organs.

But the large point is that this organic model of spontaneous, highly complex order is one which supports a vitality of life that is not present elsewhere.  This is not quite the Hayek's spontaneous order.  It lacks the mechanical sense of liberalism.  Rather it is something else.

But the metaphors we attach to have tremendous influence on our thought processes.  If we think in terms of ecosystems instead of machines, then perhaps we can move our own lives and the communities we are members of in the right directions.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Towards a Distributist principle of Separation of Interdependent Concerns, or Multidimensional Subsidiarity

One thing that sometimes annoys me as a Heathen and a Distributist is that because Distributism arose from within the English Catholic tradition, some people think Distributists must support Catholicism or at least a religion like it (Orthodox Christianity and the like).  The argument then is that a state must support a policy of discouraging a specific act not because of identifiable social harms but rather because such an act is sinful.  Because I don't accept the Christian view of sin, I cannot agree.  I do however agree that many people find such a view useful and I don't think they should be denied this.

I see society not as a series of concentric circles starting with the individual, then family, then community, then state, but rather as a multidimensional tapestry, woven in different directions, with each of us as a thread weaving in and out around the others.

I recognize that this post breaks with Distributist tradition in important ways.  Many Distributists would like to see the polis closely fused with religion and proponents of this approach rightly point to the fact that most communities in fact are highly integrated in these areas, but large territorial units do need to accommodate diversity, and this is nothing new.  The Roman Empire was very pluralistic (unless, like the Jews and Christians, you refused to participate in the pagan traditions around the military and therefore would not assist with the defence of the state), as was the Archaemenid  Empire --- Cyrus is mentioned in Isaiah as something like a Messiah for allowing the Jews to return home, but Cyrus was a worshipper of Marduk and conquered Babylon using religious politics as his primary strategy, and those who followed him were mostly Zoroastrians.

Religious pluralism is thus at least possible even going along ancient models.  The specific place of that pluralism though is not well agreed upon in Distributist thought.  I have decided to offer my own proposal then, which looks at social context as being several interdependent "dimensions" each depending on and pervading the others.  This is thus not so much about separation of church and state as it is interdependence of religious and public order, and of the institutions which support them.  The nature of that interdependence may need some further discussion to flesh out however.

In the development of a response to this issue, I came to the view that there was a larger principle at stake, namely that different social spheres required different organizational dimensions to address, and that the institutions that populate and support these spheres have duties to all the others.  Thus rather than the principle of separation of church and state in liberal philosophy, I end up with the idea that the church, state, guilds, families, etc. should remain generally neutral towards the other players in the other dimensions but support the functions of the other dimensions as they can.  Church and state are then interdependent rather than independent and each has a duty to the other.

Additionally the occasional calls for moralizing of the state I think miss important lessons from the Middle Ages and how the hegemony of the Catholic Church set up the very power struggles that lead to the Reformation.  Throughout the Middle Ages, there was a delicate dance of power between kings and churchmen, often over money, sometimes with temporary victories on each side.   This delicate dance of power can perhaps be seen to be the source of the Reformation, where the ideas of Martin Luther became a staff with which nobles and kings could beat the church with.  Understanding the Reformation in terms of this struggle goes a long way towards understanding both why it was successful primarily in areas less subject to Roman acculturation, and why many other laws accompanied the Reformation, such as bans on use of certain herbs in brewing beer (under rhetoric almost identical to the modern "war on drugs" no less).

I believe instead that it is possible to recognize that human flourishing is best handled, not by dividing social contexts into mutually exclusive spheres like we often do in modern society, but by recognizing that different aspects of human flourishing require different organizations to support them, and that these organizations are as interdependent in society as they aspects of human life are in the individual.  What arises from this is a very different notion of separation of church and state than we are used to.

Before I get into this, I expect that addressing social functions of religious groups will certainly ruffle feathers.  I want to note that my thoughts there are largely tentative and that it is hoped that further discussions particularly with people who disagree with me, will help us all arrive at greater truth.

In my view, the goal of a pluralistic society can no longer be thrown away, nor should it be.  Distributism is already making inroads into Neopagan and other non-Christian religious groups for the same reasons that Catholics adopt it, but where there is a search for roots with hands in the soil, there is also possibility of conflict over issues ranging from abortion to animal sacrifice.  In a pluralistic society,  some truce must be made.  The Catholic will not wish to participate in a pagan animal sacrifice, and the pagan household will not wish to be forced to baptise their children.[1]

The Importance of Social Context

One central theme of distributism is the recognition of the basic anthropological truth that humans are largely defined by social context and that we best grow when we recognize we are not isolated individuals but rather parts of larger units.  This isn't to say that the individual isn't important.  In fact social contexts change over time in part because of the actions of individuals, but social context nourishes us, and when we are all alone in a crowd, we suffer.  One point I am adding here is that government, alone, cannot create all aspects of social context, nor is it simply the household writ large.  Many aspects of the household must be supported by non-government organizations acting with the support of the local government.

Of course people are imaginative and inventive.  One of Victor Turner's major contributions to anthropology was the way in which the people he studied (the Ndembo tribe in Africa) tended to re-purpose religious rituals, so it is not at all true that individualism isn't an aspect.[2]  It is just that the individual and the social context are both engaged in an eternal dance, each forming the other, and, we hope, nourishing the other.

In the spirit of addressing this social context, let's now turn our attention to fundamental social institutions.  Each of these institutions is necessarily a cultural institution.  One thing I would like to emphasize is that just as we might expect that there would be multiple trade guilds in a state, so too we should expect there may be many different religious communities.  In the interest of proper human flourishing, the government should not take sides in conflicts between them.

The different spheres are then less independent than interdependent, and each sphere has duties to the others.   I will look at the following spheres and their social organizations here:

  1. Family life, organized into household
  2. Commercial life, centered around guilds or other organizations
  3. Religious life, organized into religious groups
  4. Public order, organized by the state
It is assumed that subsidiarity applies to all levels.  The extended family applies subsidiarity to households, and those to individuals.  Each sphere has duties to the other spheres including enforcing subsidiarity appropriately.  Of course significant abuses by smaller entities can mean larger entities may eventually have to take over (one example in modern history might be federal anti-discrimination statutes as a reaction to state-enforced segregation).

Each of these dimensions is a cultural dimension and it is fully dependent on the others, and must therefore consciously support the others.

The Function of the Household and Family

The household is the bedrock institution of any society.  Children are begotten and raised in a household.   The household is the primary force in transmitting culture on to the children and it is the primary influence in providing social context to children.  In our modern world we have many forms of households, as has been the case forever.  Some households will have one parent, and some two, for example, and whether the loss of one parent was due to divorce or death is perhaps secondary to the question of social support for the household itself.

I want to save questions like divorce or abortion for future posts, but I will note here that these are questions which have tremendous importance for households generally, as do issues of reproductive responsibility. (As a Heathen I am reasonably sure that my stances on issues like divorce or abortion will not be welcome to Catholics or Orthodox Christians, but I hope they will be thought-provoking.)

The household has may be seen as the meeting point of all dimensions of society, but in actuality the most local level of any other dimension meets all the others as well.  Thus they serve multiple purposes towards every other dimension.

Households support the economic sphere in numerous ways including home-based businesses, members of the household holding or working other businesses outside the home, and choices in purchasing and consuming economic goods.  One key challenge today is to bring consciousness today to such household choices.

Households support the state through their enculturing role in raising children, and encouraging good citizenship on the part of members, through contributing (through taxes) to the maintenance of public goods, through participation in bodies of government, through being available to defend the state when attacked and in numerous other ways.

Households support religious groups through participation and economic donation, but more important I think is the capacity of households to take part in discussing religious tradition, asking questions, challenging answers at times, and thus ensuring a greater understanding of that tradition when enculturing children into it.  There are of course many other ways that household support religious groups.

(I have decided to skip the guild in this discussion because this area needs additional thought regarding how to better integrate into at least a transitional approach.)

The Function of the Religious Community or Church

For the purpose of this discussion, I will be talking only about the social benefits of religion.  The spiritual benefits are the source of these social benefits, but for this discussion this is not relevant.

Religious community is important for a human sense of place for many reasons, and consequently it nourishes the family, trade sphere, and state.  Religion is the fundamental basis for the way people think about the order of life and hence every other aspect of life, from the family to commerce to the state.  Faith, not belief, orders everything, and tradition orders faith.

Religions provide two components necessary for a meaningful life: rite and mythos.  Everyone has at least some of these and we order our lives around them.[3]

Both rites and mythoi provide narratives deeply steeped in human life and spiritual experience, which provide patterns for us to live in our life.  The rites and mythoi provide an internal sense of order and this provides order not only for the individual but the family, the business, and the state.

In order to do its job properly, the religion needs relative independence from the sphere of public order.  It must be at least partially detached from mere worldly concerns.  The state may defer to the religious group on matters like marriage, but the religious group must be free to conduct rituals largely free from the interference of the state.

This is not to say that religious freedom is a blank check.  Where religious practices threaten the ability to live together as a community, it may need to be abridged.  Certainly one cannot allow one group to kidnap children of another group for human sacrifice or as brides or bridegrooms of their religious leaders, but a mere sense by one group that a practice is wrong is not enough to interfere with it.

Traditionally religious groups have typically provided additional support structures to families as well.  Churches have fed the poor, grown food for the poor, arranged help for those who need it, and so forth.  Such support structures have ranged from the seasonal Things in pagan Scandinavia to the Catholic Worker houses and farms.  Thus religious groups not only order life but support and protect the family household.

Religious groups have a general obligation to support the family and the state, and to protect both from the other.  They facilitate commerce by providing additional forums for social discussion.   Religious organizations thus provide a philosophical, personal, and experiential ordering of all spheres of life which are not found directly in the other dimensions.  Public order is not personal order, and not an order for life.

The Function of the State

The state exists to provide public order, and to prevent any single entity in any other sphere from becoming too big or powerful.

Cicero said that the basis of the law is that there are certain requirements for us to live together in cities.[4]  This largely echoes Aristotle, who places the household at the center, and this is a path Cicero continues in his discussion of turning in family members for crimes.[5]

The state must take over at least the following concerns:

  1. Encouraging just distribution of property, and ensuring that no other entity in other dimensions becomes too large or powerful
  2. Protecting property rights of the household and members of the household from violence by other households
  3. Running those pieces of public infrastructure which otherwise would require monopolies odious to the Distributist social order.  This is a key difference between libertarianism with its religious faith in business and Distributism with its emphasis on community.
 The responsibility of the state doesn't end there. The purpose of the state is to nourish and provide proper ordering for the other dimensions of society as entities in those areas interact with themselves.  Business deals occur as matters of public order.  In essence the state does everything needed to ensure the religious groups, the families, the guilds, the small businesses, etc. prosper and that the larger businesses do not get so powerful so as to threaten or distort the structure of society.

Cross-Dimensional Concerns of Subsidiarity

A state which is too large, or a trade guild which is too powerful, or a great aristocratic family can all threaten the social order.  One important aspect of subsidiarity is the management of power and responsibility and the way to ensure that actions are taken where knowledge is local. A state which is too powerful will threaten religion and the family, as we see in modern America,  A religion which is too powerful will threaten the state.  Church and state fighting the hegemony of the other lead to the possibility of total victory by one side, such as in the Reformation in Germanic Europe and the British Isles.  The large businesses too can distort the society (again see modern America for examples there).

Every dimension of society has a responsibility to push for subsidiarity in every other dimension.  Churches must push for smaller states, states must push for smaller, more intimate and personal, churches.  The megachurches of thousands of worshippers every Sunday must give way to the small congregation of perhaps a couple score of faithful.   Powerful families must be reined in, powerful businesses must be reined in.

But through this approach we can have pluralism not only as the liberals suggest, but real, deep, and vital pluralism of culture and tradition.  Our immediate social circles can be smaller but more personal, intimate, and supportive.  As the immature ecosystem contains large numbers of poorly supported plants which eventually, through succession, get replaced by smaller numbers of more productive, mutually supporting plants, so too our communities can thrive and prosper.

In the next post, I will go over my view of human flourishing from my heathen tradition and parallels in Hindu and Catholic thought.


[1]  This was required legally in most of the Middle Ages.  For example the Gragas in Iceland had significant discussion as to who was required to do a baptism and under what circumstances.  My argument is that without turning our backs on having some degree of plurality in our culture, we can no longer have such requirements.

[2] Turner, Victor.  "The Ritual Process"  See also Grimes, Ronald. "Deeply Into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage"

[3] For example, Eliade, Mircea, "Myth and Reality" and "The Myth of Eternal Return."  Also see Eliade's "The Sacred and the Profane."  The one thing  I am less than convinced by is the idea that secularists lack a sacred.  Just because one claims not to have rituals doesn't mean that in fact one in fact lacks them, as the Quakers show.  The same can be shown with myths, and I would be unsurprised if a close look at secularists wouldn't show the same patterns.

[4] Cicero, "The Republic"

[5[ Aristotle, "Politics."  In The Republic, Cicero suggests that family members should not turn eachother in for crimes because the interest of the state in strong families outweighs the interest of justice.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The World Tree

Occasionally, as a heathen, I have discussions with Catholics and other Christians who think they understand the idea of the World Tree.  In general, they do not.  I figure this is as good of a place as any to discuss the differences in how trees are described in the Bible vs in Norse (and other Indo-European) myth.   It is also a useful place for the beginning of an interfaith dialog on cosmology and meaning, not from the perspective of discussing relations but rather of learning to speak eachothers' languages.

So I will start by describing my understanding of the way trees are portrayed in the Bible, and then move to Norse and Indo-European myth generally.  Finally I will move to the question of what the tree metaphor tells us in a pagan context, and what truth we find.

In the Bible, trees are always known by their fruit.  There are the trees of life and knowledge in Eden, the likening of a teacher to a tree, and knowing the teacher by the fruit in the New Testament, etc.  Norse myth however tends to look to the tree generally, not as an olive tree or another element of agriculture, but rather as a deep, universal, self-contained metaphor.  Trees thus represent the universe, the society, and the individual, and these three things are considered to be interchangeable in terms of mythic patterns.

The Tree of Man in Norse Myth

Then came three,
three from the throng,
From the lair of the Gods,
And they found on the land
Of little might
Ask and Embla[1]
Of no fate

Breath they had not
Song[2] they knew not
Hair, nor looks
Nor good countenance
Breath gave Odhinn
Hoenir gave Song[3]
Hair gave Lodhur
And good countenance
-- Voluspa stanzas 17-18 (my own translation)
The first interesting parallel here is to Hesiod's Cosmogony where Zeus, the chieftain of the gods, creates the human race from ash trees.[3]  Add to this the sisters of Phaethon being transformed into amber-teared poplar trees, and you see a strong connection between humans and trees in Greek myth as well.  Complete Celtic cosmogonies have not survived, nor were myths of this sort used in Roman times.   On to the Indo-Iranian branch, we see the association of Kundalini coiled around the base of the tree, but the tree is the human spine, again showing this metaphor found in these other branches as well.  It is almost certain that tree as human and human as tree is a motif found across the Indo-European cultural and mythological traditions.[5]

But back to the creation of humans in Norse myth.  Rather than created from the dust of the earth, as in Genesis, humans are created instead from trees which are already living but seen as lacking the unique aspects of human vitality.   The gods provide these capabilities, animating and providing additional social context to the trees (but see below).  Hair was a marker for social status among the Norse with slaves having very short hair while others allowed to have longer hair.[6]  Similarly countenance provides social context.

However the application of this area doesn't presuppose a total lack of social context to trees.  In the 12th century Icelandic poem "Havamal," we have:

The lonesome fir-tree
Stands in the field
Bereft of bark and needle
So is the man
Who is shunned by all
Why should his life be long?
-- Havamal stanza 50 (my translation)
The lesson here is that just as trees shelter and support eachother, so too with human society and that any one of us that is abandoned by society will not live long.  Similarly we have cases of logs being dressed as people and becoming like humans, and the importance of clothing in determining social context.

The overall note here is that the tree is a model for the human.  In my own spiritual approach, I say:  "Grow like a tree and be not afraid of shadows:  Seek the darkness and then the light!"

When the seed of a tree germinates a slow process of awakening occurs, which culminates in a root beginning to push outward from the tree and move into the earth below.  From the darkness of the earth below, the seed finds water and some nourishment.  Slowly in this way, the seed then begins to send up leaves reaching towards the sun.  It is through this process that human growth is best done.

The darkness below represents many things.  It represents the tradition and the ancestors (the land of the dead usually being below the earth in pagan societies).  It is a land inhabited sometimes by fearsome monsters, and so facing fears and poking around dark corners of history and the psyche are part of what I recommend.[7]  It is through the discipline developed here that one can be grounded in one's quest for the divine.

The light is of course the land of the gods.  It is the part of the spiritual experience that gives those peak experiences that Maslow wrote about, and where we can be tall and imposing, carrying spiritual weight wherever we go.

The tree reminds us generally of the nature of the hero, tall, strong, and unyielding like a tree.

The Tree of Society in Norse Myth (and Platonic Parallels)

The tree is also a social metaphor and this is perhaps best seen in the Volsung Saga (a prose edition, basically, of the earlier Sigurd cycle of epic poems) where the Barnstokk hall is built around a giant tree with the tree in the middle.  This is in essence a manifestation of the king but also the society.  Odin thrusts a sword into the tree proclaiming that whoever can pull it out can have it.  This may be the origin of the Arthurian sword in the stone story.[5]  In this story the tree nicely sums up the connection of the human and social structure.

At this point, suffice it to say that the world, the social, and the human tree are all interchangeable and interrelated.  Examples will be given in the next section.  A good organization is no different than a good individual, and even when we talk about "incorporation" we talk about it as creating a figurative "person."  While in some ways we arguably carry this too far in other ways we do not go far enough.   Our organizations would be better if we think of how to structure them in human terms rather than merely as machines.

In Republic, Plato makes the argument that society is fundamentally like a human in anatomy because we make up societies (in Letters he extends this to Godhead and therefore establishes this framework as the precursor to the Christian Trinity).  Plato argues that humans are divided into three centers, a head, a heart, and a belly with different functions and that society works with the greatest justice when these functions are performed by their experts in harmony with eachother.

One other important aspect discussed by Mircea Eliade and others is the use of the societal tree to represent the center of the world.[8]  This leads us directly into the final portion of this metaphor:  The World Tree.

The Tree of The World in Norse Myth and Hindu Parallels

The World Tree is noted in Voluspa immediately following the creation of humans from Ask and Embla:

I know stands an ash,[9]
Called "Yggdrassil," [Yggdrassil means "Odin's Horse]
A tall and high tree
With white dew
Then comes the floods
that fall in the dales---
It stands evergreen
At the well of Urdh.
Then came maidens,
Much in knowing[10]
Three for the hall
That stands under the tree:
The first was called Urdh,[11]
The second Verdhandi[11]--
They scores did cut--
Skuld[11] was the third.
They lots allotted
They lives chose.
To the sons of men
They uttered destiny.[12]
-- Voluspa stanza 19-20, my own translation
The tree is mentioned over and over possibly in this context in the mythic poems Vafthrudhnismal, Grimnismal, Havamal, and others.  It is the central model of Norse myth, and we learn that its branches reach above the home of the gods, and the roots go down into unfathomable depths below.  The World Tree is all pervasive and alive.

One important point though is that we can not be entirely sure whether the tree in any of these contexts really is used to represent the universe, human society, or the individual, and it is in this ambiguity that the myth takes on its deepest and most vital aspects.

Turning to Hinduism, I am reminded of one of the Upanishads where a young Brahmin in training is sent out to meditate on various natural elements including the sun, moon, sky, wind, and lightening.  He is told to meditate and try to realize that "That is what you are."  The message, as found in many of the other Upanishads, is that the deep truth (Brahman means "The sacred truth") in each of us is the same as in everything else, and the Upanishads teach that when we fully recognize this that we become no different than the Gods.  The world tree here is similarly all pervasive and it teaches that we are in everything and everything is in us.  The models do differ to some extent.  While the Hindu model is more static, the Norse model suggests that the tree may serve various metaphorical aspects during our development and the unification with everything is really only at the end.

I can think of no better model of integrative living than the tree, however, because it reminds us that our organizations, ourselves, and our world are more different in scale than in nature.


[1] Ask = "Ash" as in ash tree.  It is also found generally as a poetic title for a warrior.  Embla is of uncertain meaning.  Proposed meanings have been "Elm" or "Vine."  "The ornamented" is another proposed etymology.  Given that "ash" was also used in kennings for yew trees, which have separate male and female plants, and where the female trees show ornaments, I tend to support this etymology.

[2]  The original word here is "Odh" which can mean song, inspiration, frenzy, or madness.  The name of the god "Odhinn" or "Odin" means "Master of Odh."

[3]  Hoenir is otherwise known for his silence.

[4]  See also Polome, Edgar, "Essays on Germanic Religion"

[5]  Not purely a scholarly reference  but see Travers, Chris, "The Serpent and the Eagle: An Introduction to the Elder Runic Tradition"

[6] Peter G. Foote and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement.

[7] Borrowed in part from Assagioli, Roberto. "Psychosynthesis: A Collection of Basic Writings"   Assagioli saw Dante's "Divine Comedy" as the ideal model for psychotherapy, in particular that of preparing the human spirit for mystical endeavors.  My model is similar.

[8] Eliade, Mircea.  "Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy"

[9] Note the Old Norse word here is "ask" which is the same as in "ask ok embla" in the human creation myth.

[10] The implication is that these are sorceresses.

[11]  The names of the sorceress-norns are interesting.  The first's name is usually used to mean "fate" but literally means "What has turned or become."  Verdhandi means "What is turning or becoming" while Skuld usually simply means "debt."  The debt is quite possibly related to the primordial debt in Greek myth discussed by F. M. Conrford in "From Religion to Philosophy."

[12]  The Old Norse here is "orlog seggja" and can be more literally translated as "They spoke the primordial lots or layers."  The idea of fate becoming effective on speaking is also found in the Old English poem "The Wanderer.