An observation into the shifting semantics of definition.
According to definitions found in Wikipedia [there are other more academic versions, but these suit well enough the purpose of this essay], Ehyeh, asher ehyeh is often taken to mean: ‘I am who I am,’ or ‘I am who I will be’ or even ‘I shall be that I shall be.’
These expressions place deity beyond the need for names or categories and pronounce it simply as ‘Is.’ Philosophically, this is actually quite brilliant, because it preserves the mystery of the ineffable name thereby denying dogma and prejudice where such names are pejorative and divisive. Things begin to get sticky when less enlightened or irresolute people place barriers and conditions upon names or even their interpretations or understandings of them. Disagreement inevitably ensues, factionalization soon follows and finally persecution rears its ugly head.
Who decides for instance, which of the following two quotes also taken from Wikipedia is correct or best suits their beliefs?:
- 'Thou art God' is an expression of a ‘religious philosophy that all things are part of a singular God presiding over a singular reality.'
- 'Tat Tvsam Asi' – [That art thou] places this philosophy back within the remit of mankind claiming that ‘We are each Gods of our own reality possessing the divine ability to combine universes with other Gods on a consensual basis.’
The first is often given to represent monotheistic inclinations, the second, a monist polytheism. Initially, they both appear in conflict, but taken to abstract, whereby singular [as in individual] may not be interpreted as sole reality or god, they are not so distinct and actually share the higher principles ascribed to them.
Fundamentalism occurs where an insistence upon sole [as in no other] interpretation is asserted to the detriment of all others. Modern politically correct terminology is now so loose regarding anything pertaining to belief systems [now an accepted aspect of our human rights – in theory at least] that the definition ascribed to religion as something that induces a sense of the numinous, would encompass just about every belief and practice in the world from the ridiculous to the sublime [including the ‘Church of Sponge Bob,’ whichever end of that spectrum you might place it]. This either demeans or frees the value of the term religion depending upon your perspective.
It is important here to check this against an academic definition of religion just a decade ago:
- Religion: The outward act or form by which men indicate their recognition of the existence of a god or of gods having power over their destiny, to whom obedience, service, and honor are due; the feeling or expression of human love, fear, or awe of some superhuman and overruling power, whether by profession of belief, by observance of rites and ceremonies, or by the conduct of life; a system of faith and worship; a manifestation of piety. [Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913 – Online]
Though this definition does include the somewhat nebulous modern understanding of an awareness of numinosity, it importantly places ‘Religion’ as a service to and [specifically] worship of [rather than a reverence for] a god or god/s.
The terms, pagan, witch, spirituality and mysticism are equally problematic and I encourage any interested person to seriously research all variants in order to fully satisfy themselves of the enormous latitude given to these socio/religious labels we all feel compelled to subscribe for fear that we shall become somehow unacceptable without them.
People argue quite vociferously as to who is ‘this’ or ‘that,’ often without first agreeing upon a definition of what ‘this’ or ‘that’ implies. What these terms signify in actuality is quite mind-boggling. For example, if you ask for a quick definition of ‘Pagan,’ many would undoubtedly quote the much abused etymology of ‘paganus,’ i.e.: the rustic county dweller. Yet biblical exegesists and academic historians would say this was wrongly used; where in fact after the Christianization of Rome in the 3rd century BCE, any religion [note they are here defining it as a religion] outside that of the State [following on from the Cult of the Emperor]even within the city itself, would be considered as ‘Pagan.’ This defines it first as inferior and secondly as being outside the norm of the hierarchy. It is presented as not sophisticated, hence its rusticity…but not necessarily in association with rural life. Many cults and sects listed as Pagan had little or nothing to do with the countryside. Ostensibly, many household and personal shrines and gods within the city were considered ‘Pagan.’
Within many parts of Asia, where Buddhism is often the state ‘religion,’ does this application make other beliefs practiced there Pagan? Many Buddhists of course would not consider their beliefs a religion. The Christians living there would certainly not consider themselves Pagan! So do we confine such definitions to the West, in which case where and how do these shift as we move eastwards?
If we attempt to narrow things down to pre-Christian ‘indigenous’ beliefs – then what are these and how can these be agreed when no western country has maintained such beliefs?
Names are convenient monikers at least when used on mundane levels, but in matters of politics, belief system or practice, they become almost a violation. Offering some protection, eponymous titles equally render us with particular vulnerabilities. Far from paranoia, this is hard reality.
How do we then move to define religion, mysticism and spirituality?
Should we even attempt to?
How do these things differ?
Is my understanding the same as yours?
Are any of these things, especially religion, defined by codification, or belief?
These are questions of Theology I will not even begin to attempt to answer here, such things are for each individual [or group/s of individuals] to explore to their own satisfaction. Definitions abound in abundance. But what to do with the information once compiled. How does anyone agree on deeply emotive issues that seek to express the single most personal issue that we as a species were gifted to intuit?
Can anyone ever really know?
Who should we believe and why?
Question, questions questions! So many options, so much choice and does it all solve anything?
Does any definition change the way we feel or only the way we express that to others?
This logically leads us to ask, why do we even use titles and labels?
Is it to identify ourselves, to give us a sense of belonging with others who also share that title?
Or is it to pronounce to others not of that title the distinction we have from them?
Are we even sure that the meaning accepted by either is the same as our own?
Definitions paradoxically reveal and conceal, they express and suppress. They are ‘terms’ whereby as a species we are marked, taxonomically and typologically quite indiscriminately. Despite the fact that it is said that the meaning of a word lies in its use, there are a number of bewildering and contradictory renditions given for many key words or phrases utilized by those within the Craft and/or Pagan communities today. I say ‘and/or,’ because I believe them to be separate, but, depending upon your definition, you might disagree. Of course we can only really disagree if we agree upon the terminology used to define both to begin with. And this is precisely where everything falls apart.
For example, in a game of chess, there are quite specific known rules, which both players having accepted, adhere to. The winner is decided by his/her ability to strategically or tactically outmanouver their opponent. Military engagement was defined by similar criteria. In debate, however, there is rhetoric – that is, there is immense latitude for interpretation [off course when rhetoric was an art, rules of grammar were applicable, but this in no way impeaches this example]. This is all to the good where people are defining themselves or their ideas to one another. But, where terms are used by others not fully conversant with them such that any original definition becomes subsumed under the mire of semantics, then no-one has any hope of fair, open discussion or understanding. Presumption is the sister to assumption. Of course it would be absurd to pronounce ourselves, listing what we believe everything to mean, how tedious that would be! Nevertheless, moving away from this extreme it is moot that we should be wary of names and titles, both those we give to ourselves and to others that we feel express our beliefs.
During a recent forum I attended that focused upon these penetrative issues, when asked by what criteria is a ‘witch’ defined, a wise person responded: “I would allow/her/him to define themselves.” Here I would add only that they in turn should offer any one of us the same unprejudiced privilege.
In other words: “I am that I am!”
Before leaving you with the profound wisdom of Buddha, I ask just one more question.
Opinion is easily offered, but can this be said of conviction?
“Believe nothing on the faith of traditions, even though they have been held in honour for many generations and in diverse places.
Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it.
Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past.
Do not believe what you yourself have imagined,
persuading yourself that a God inspires you.
Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests.
After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.”