The day after Brigit I drove down to Oakland to give a talk on the Mondragon co-operatives of Spain. Afterwards I met with a Pagan friend for lunch and invited another who I had not met previously, but with whom I had corresponded, to join us. After arriving, she mentioned she had been raised a Pentecostal, and as a child of 12 had experienced a miraculous healing at their hands. She had long had one leg shorter than another, making walking awkward. During the healing session she had felt energy working in her body, and after it her legs were both of the same length. She could walk normally.
I have been personally involved in enough healing efforts, both individually and in a coven, that I was not impressed that such healings happened. But I was impressed with its power.
Her account also raised a conundrum.
I am trained as a political scientist and theorist. In both cases I look for patterns that help establish links between phenomena otherwise seemingly disconnected. I do the same with respect to spirituality, for we Wiccans have never claimed to be the only good path- just that ours is a path we love. So how could spiritual truth be found in so many spiritual paths? Were there common patterns?
But Pentecostal Christianity doctrinally is the opposite of this. It often aggressively argues Pagan polytheism is demonic, and Christianity is the only legitimate religion. Yet the healing she reported to me was an impressive one.
I drove home mulling this story over. Later I looked at my Facebook page and found an interesting response to a statement I had made about Ayn Rand and her philosophy. I had claimed Rand was the primary conduit of Nietzschean authoritarian nihilism to this country, tarted up in individualist garb that, when read superficially, sounded 100% American. Now a FB friend countered that a friend of his claimed Rand had had a formative influence for the better on his life, and that he was one of the kindest and most caring people he knew.
As it happens I have also had contact with this man, Chris Matthew Sciabarra. We had correspomded fitfully for years and I always found him every bit as my FB friend described. I was tempted to simply respond that Chris had managed to make lemonade out of a lemon, a particularly sour one, but I hesitated. His example violated my argument about her influence, and it behooved me to take the example seriously. Chris was, after all, a significant writer on Rand.
I turned to an article Sciabarra wrote describing Rand’s personal impact on him when he discovered her work as a young man suffering from extraordinarily bad health.
Here was a woman who wrote about the heroic individual, a woman who had crafted a philosophy that celebrated the creative and productive translation of human potential into human accomplishment. It’s not that she gave me the strength to triumph over the occasional self-pity I felt as a youngster. It’s that she provided me with the kind of philosophical justification that told me it was my right to be and to flourish.
Then I saw a challenging pattern. . .
Two major intellectual positions that I believed – and still believe – to have significant truth to them had been dealt counter examples in one day. One regarding religion and spirituality, the other regarding politics and the power of ideas. What was going on? I needed to think about this.
Over a year ago I had been a guest at a Pentecostal service in Springfield, Missouri. While the gathering was much more sedate than the traditional image of people talking in tongues, it had been impressive on two fronts. First, within the community and even towards me as a guest whom many knew was not a Christian, I encountered a friendliness that seemed genuine. The service spent considerable time on helping others and while I was present spent no time on others’ “theological mistakes.”
In addition, I felt a very familiar kind of “energy” coursing through my body. One I knew from other ritual contexts.
This particular group was in a huge modern mega-church built to hold 1000 or more, with big screens and even a bunch of shops in its ‘secular’ part. Alien to my experience, but clearly not to theirs. A minister there told me that the power of the Spirit was more subdued in these modern mass congregations than in a smaller more traditional one, and told me if I came through again she would try and arrange my visiting one.
With respect to their own community and those in serious need (they were helping in rebuilding Joplin, MO, after it was the victim of a particularly destructive tornado) these folks acted in a sincerely loving and caring manner. In addition, they had no problem working with “energy” and being its conduits.
When loving people meet within a spiritual context that even further enlarges their care and commitment, and focus their attention on healing, and they do as part of a long established community while invoking Spirit’s help, insofar as Spirit is characterized by love, we should not be surprised that It responds.
Dogma is irrelevant. In fact I think it gets in the way.
I also think it is no accident that the traditions most focused on this kind of thing are also the ones where music, dance, praise, ecstasy, extreme suffering, and other methods that set linear rationality aside for a while, are also known for their focus on healing. These methods help our day to day minds to step aside, and if our hearts are open, Spirit can more easily come through. This is true whether it be Pentecostals, Umbanda, Voudon, Gardnerian Wicca, or some other tradition, for there are many who do so.
And what about Ayn Rand?
From this perspective the example of the kind and generous admirer of Ayn Rand also becomes more understandable. Reading Rand is the opposite of attending a ritual such as I described above. But no written source exists by itself. It exists within a context, and most importantly, the context of the reader’s experience.
Sciabarra had drawn an important lesson from his own considerable physical suffering. In his essay he writes
It would have been very easy to focus just on my limitations. And there were times, growing up, that I cried because I was so sick, and couldn’t do certain things. It wasn’t merely feeling sorry for myself something that can come very easily to any person facing a “handicap” or a “disability.” It’s that the limitations were, and remain, all too real.
But every human being on the planet, every entity in the universe, is something particular, something definite, something with a certain finite, limited nature. That which is helps us to understand that which might be. The actual sets the terms, the conditions, for the potential.
What stands out here for me is that Sciabarra brought to his reading awareness of his debt to his upbringing and his sharing a situation with all other beings, even if his challenges appeared rather more daunting than most. He did not wall himself off from others. Consequently he could take in Rand’s message of personal power and competence as basic goods and rights. He could shift from focusing on how life was unfair to how life offered opportunities. He could accept her message of the heroic individual without also taking in her lack of concern for others.
In other words, he read Rand with a good heart. Doing so strengthened him in facing the challenges of his life while the quality of his character immunized him from the destructive side of her message. Perhaps this is like those reading Nietzsche, who also has had a profoundly ambiguous impact on people depending on the message they took from him. Some are the better for it, some the worse.
This is likely why many adolescents find Rand a bracing tonic when encountering her in their mid to late teens. She encourages them (us actually, for I was one) to have more faith in our own worth independent of others’ judgments. We are better enabled to see ourselves as worth while, and to distrust those who seek power over us “for our own good.” But most of us also reject the authoritarian nihilism that has become such an important part of the contemporary American right, promulgated by men and the occasional woman who read Rand and find in her justification for their own unwillingness to care for others, or acknowledge their debt to their society and ancestors. They became the Paul Ryans, Ron Pauls, and other ideological flotsam and jetsam of the radical right.
Sciabarra was apparently more profoundly influenced by Rand than most of us because of the extremely challenging circumstances in which he encountered her. But because of who he was, he interpreted her in a human way that, to my mind, she only partially deserves. She enabled him to contact depths of strength he already possessed.
This leads me to an important point about reading. Every act of reading is an interpretation, and every act of interpretation is a marriage, or at least fleeting relationship, between ourselves and our text. This is true for every ‘text,’ from a manuscript to the Wheel of the Year. As with people, what we see in others is at least partially determined by what we bring in ourselves to the encounter. And so it is no suprise that different people find profoundly different messages in the same texts.
The bigger context
Over 20 years ago, in a time of great personal crisis, I had a mystical experience of what is commonly called the “Godhead.” This experience is not of a monotheistic deity, but rather a Source from which everything emerges. The only quality of this Source that I experienced was one of perfect unconditional love. Earlier my most powerful encounter with the Wiccan Goddess had also included experiencing this same quality, but as it manifested through a feminine source, one with a sense of nature within Her. These two experiences, more than any others, led me to thinking a broadly NeoPlatonic model of divine emanations made the most sense of how the world of duality existed. Its core, its most basic single quality, was love.
A love that could be very well hidden and lost from sight.
Because this love is unconditional, it is not limited by formal dogmas. If anything, they often get in its way. Certainly reason has an important role to play in understanding the world and our place in it. But its role is ultimately supportive. A good heart with a mistaken understanding (which probably includes the best of us) is far closer to grasping and being in tune with what is most true and basic than even the most subtle and well-reasoned account, minus that heart.
I believe this solves the dilemma I discovered the day after Brigit. In terms of living a good life or of connecting with what is most basic in the world, heart trumps reason. I hope this insight is useful for others as well.
On Feb 10 I improved the writing but did not change the message.