DISCLAIMER: I haven’t finished reading Peter Gray’s Apocalyptic Witchcraft and am probably missing key parts of his argument which will give nuance to what I am reacting to here in this post. If so, I will do my best to come back and edit in my new understanding.
UPDATE: Further reading of the book has revealed something of a praxis for breaking up and restructuring our cultural baggage. Follow that on my next post!
In the chapter titled “The Cup, the Cross, and the Cave” Gray argues that, among other things related to reclaiming dreaming as witchcraft, we should disconnect from the propaganda machine that is our modern consumerist culture in order to rediscover a deeper and truer vision of ourselves and our place in the world. While Gray acknowledges some of the ideological underpinnings–the foundational ideas–that gave rise to our present, disenchanted mode of thought, he doesn’t seem to take something vital into account:
Though our powers of creative thought are great, they are always somewhat derived from the deep impressions of the cultural milieu around us. We always somewhat trapped in the zeitgeist of the age by mental habit, and our works will be referential.
This is how come folks raised Catholic have a greater flair for the orchestrated drama of ritual, why we have forged old gods into triples that were never so, and why most “baby pagans” tend to refer to their spiritual growth in contrast to their often fundamental Christian upbringings. Our pasts mark us–hopefully not irrevocably–because the formation of our personalities were set within a certain cultural and mental frame. Thus, paganism acquires an exotic allure, beginning to practice and live its tenets give spice and edge to living. We are born-again pagans, and it is lovely.
So, how will unplugging from the conventional modes of cultural transmission–television, social media, etc.–truly emancipate us? Gray suggests that we engage our primal creativity, relocate to the realm of dreams and mystery, where all mythologies are born. I can see the appeal to this. Early humans fabricated a myriad of pantheons and nascent religions through this method. Every prophet of new or reformed faiths can count upon at least one dreamlike mystical experience. Neurobiology suggests many of the same neuronal pathways are active in dreaming and religious experiences.
The path exists and it has been trod for tens of thousands of years… But what comes out of it?
The mystic wakes and reality filters in. The smudged boundaries of the self are drawn again by virtue of the familiar. (“This is my body, this is my place, these are my clothes and here is my place.”) Contemplation follows; the mystic is revisited in sobering wakefulness; memories edited as they pass through the filters of our understanding and experience. The new, the truly mystical, sticks out and gets mulled over. Years may pass, and some visions may never be understood, but those aren’t the successful theologies of the world. Each and every one of them are processed, packaged in new and old truths, communicated and re-created in the minds with their own filters and biases.
The wild creativity of dreaming, cannot supply our divergent faiths alone.
What is the solution? I don’t know. But I doubt it requires the true Seeker to divorce themselves from the culture they inhabit. Nor should we strive to reach the exotic heights of lonely mystics on the mountain–madmen, because their insight cannot be understood by layfolk. I suspect there is use for mindfulness, here. Perhaps we ought to became aware of the narrative our civilization spits out at us, dissect it dispassionately, mine it for gold and discard the dross. This means taking the cool, analytical scalpel to everything–everything!–and leaving nothing as sacred, rather than ignoring what makes us sick.