The Power of ‘And’

The following is taken in part from my book The Modern Totemist, 2019

The journey that is taken along path of the wise involves a reckoning with contradiction.   So many ideas can catch and snag within tour logical minds due to their obvious incompatibility— yet necessary harmony must be found when they are taken as independent objects of truth or beauty.  

Is God real, or imagined? Singular, or plural?

Is the human animal inherently selfless, or selfish?

Is religion a force for good? Or is it simply a tool of social oppression?

Do all religions teach the same truth? Or different truths— that are somehow equally true?

The spiritually knowing understand that the differences between these sorts of opposites are often irreconcilable.  Yet at the same time, the combination of such opposites holds the catalyst of creation, the yin and the yang within all things. For such contradictions, it can be their greatest strength and their greatest weakness, at once, that both sides of the coin are equally true—  and equally not true. 

I understand that for some people it can feel like finding sure resolutions to such contradictions is necessary to proceed forward along an honest spiritual path. Human minds like neatness, order, and categories for all things. It can be a confusing cognitive journey; no one said the path toward wisdom was going to be easy. Yet spiritual truth, by its very nature, should be intuitively obvious, unworthy of such stressful consternation. 

I would like to suggest a philosophy of sorts, a means of understanding, that might offer a solution. It comes highly recommended for purposes of addressing these difficult questions of opposites, as well as any others one might encounter along the broader path of spiritual discovery. It’s called and/and

The idea of and/and comes from a segment of contemporary British neo-pagan thinking, from groups that seek to connect themselves to the true pagan or pre-christian ways of ancient Britain, and not necessarily with Wicca, which, while also closely associated with its birthplace of Britain, is a much more modern invention. It is an idea that found me through works of Elen Sentier, which explore the ancient practices of deer worship through the Reindeer goddess Elen of the Ways (found in the book of the same name: Elen of the Ways). To be perfectly honest, I’m unsure how prevalent these ideas actually are among the population of British pagans as a whole, but for me they rang true and have helped me help those spiritual seekers who possess more questioning and linear minds (including my own). 

The idea of and/and is one important lesson learned when becoming spiritually wise or knowing, (known as being “canny” in the tradition), and it states that the physical world and the metaphysical world operate by different rules, different logic. Most of us are exposed at some point in our educations to the Greek philosophy that contradicts this, that says the same rules of logic and reason that exist in the physical world should also apply to ideas and to the process of rational thinking in general; some of us may have even taken courses in philosophy and might recall exercises in which logical statements are organized like math problems, to the tune of “If we hold idea A to be true, but it contradicts idea B, then we can assume idea B to be be false. If we know idea C says the same thing as idea A, we can assume it to be true,” etc etc. Often this type of thinking is is referred to as following Euclidian logic, following mathematics. To the canny, it is known by the shorthand designation of “either/or” thinking. Either idea A is true or it is not, and if idea B is true then idea A is not, etc etc. 

It is true that our concepts of “thoughts” and “the mind” are metaphysical constructs themselves, but we run into some uncomfortable problems when we try to apply either/or logic to most other metaphysical ideas, which especially in a pagan context really means a spiritual context. 

For example, I have some vivid memories of a class I had to take in college that was taught by the philosophy department head. He was attempting to force a room that included many anthropology majors (including myself) to accept either/or logic in place of cultural relativism, or the idea that the actions of an individual should only be judged moral or immoral by the standards of their own culture, and not by the standards of the observer. We understood this to be anthropology’s attempt to simply observe other cultures while keeping judgement based in Western values out of a report. You see, in the past, anthropology as a discipline has had something of a problem with this very thing, labeling cultures and practices negatively in ways that sometimes had real consequences: for example, a single ethnographer’s characterization of the Yanomami of Brazil as violent, head-hunting “fierce people” was used as an excuse by the Brazilian government to forcibly take their lands. 

However, this professor saw our discipline’s attempt at non-subjective observation as political correctness run amok— an attempt to be “nice” to everyone that would ultimately hinder our ability to think critically, to see what was actually real and not real, good and not good, in all of humanity. I remember him standing at the whiteboard trying to get us to admit to his way with a thought experiment: “In this scenario we are given two choices: either the soul goes to an afterlife OR it is reincarnated. If one is true, the other cannot be true. You cannot say both beliefs are ‘right’! You can say a culture has a right to an incorrect belief. And until we know one or the other is true, we can say either group could be right. But if one is true, the other has to be false! It is wrong. You need to be able to say someone is ‘wrong’ — not ‘bad’ but ‘wrong’—when they hold a false belief.” It was something of a mess, as you can imagine. 

Today, over a decade later, a lot has changed, and I understand a little more where he was coming from. There’s a lot of social evolution happening right now, and I often do see people neglect to think critically in their rush to be accepting and non-judgmental, especially concerning hot-button topics like gender and sexuality, feminism, cultural appropriation, and how to eat in a way that is the most healthy, ethical, and environmentally friendly. It’s easy to forget that our own search for truth can and maybe should be a separate thing from being kind and tolerant of others as they walk their own life paths. You can think someone is wrong and still respect them. 

However, despite his best intentions, my professor was still wrong, and here’s why: his entire argument rested on the single word if. Yes, if we could objectively prove that something definitive happens to the human soul at death, it would prove false all other beliefs. But so what? Matters of the spirit are just not like science, where we can gather hard data and replicate experiments; they are by-and-large ideas and feelings, they will never be “proven” one way or another. In class, I pointed out to him that he treated the idea of a soul as a known constant when it absolutely is not, as he was forgetting there are an infinite number of ways to understand a soul as both a singular — and plural— entity, cross-culturally, including those who don’t believe in its existence at all, meaning it actually was possible for both or neither options to be “right.” His word-equation might hold true on paper, but there was no real-world scenario in which it was realistically possible to “prove” an answer. 

While we might be able to eventually prove some aspects of some religions to be true or not, matters of the spirit are by-and-large subjective concepts, based in personal experience, and are not usually experienced or understood the same way by all— even when multiple people share the same belief structure. A hundred people could observe the same rainbow, and maybe only one person feels it is a sign from the spirit world. Does that make that one man “wrong” because none of the others felt it was a sign? Does that make the ninety-nine others wrong because they missed it? Which is right? What is true? In fact, to the canny, it is entirely possible that both are true. 

And so in this roundabout way I bring us to and/and. The laws of the spirit world are different from the laws of the physical world. When we look at the dream world and the world of visions and traditional, sometimes shamanic ways of interpreting them, we come across the idea that one will see things there as backwards, reversed, or “upside-down” from how they really are— but that is just the tip of the iceberg, a superficial side-effect of a much deeper construct. In the spirit world, the metaphysical world, things that appear to be contradictions, opposites to each other, can also be equal to each other, the same. Similar to the scary world of non-Euclidian geometry Lewis Carrol tried to express in creating Wonderland, the spirit world is a place where what seems “constant” is not constant, where what is “normal” is not normal, and where things like pocket-watches and chess pieces can be infinitely complex metaphors and random imagery with no meaning at all— at once. 

The idea can be applied to so, so many ideas within religion and spirituality, and it resolves so much cognitive dissonance (or that uncomfortable feeling that comes from having two conflicting ideas at once) that is honestly unnecessary. We have been taught to believe that if ideas conflict then only one can be true, but that is not the case— not with the spirit, anyway.

“God” or deity both objectively exists and is a construct of human imagination and does not exist; it is both a singular entity, the pagan All or the Christian God, and it is many entities, the face of individual human experiences of darshan, in every culture on earth. The Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine are oppositional and opposite to each other, encompassing the diametric nature of the pagan Lord and Lady and they are the same being, showing the singularity of the human soul. Human beings are inherently good, altruistic, and kind, and they are also inherently evil, selfish, and violent. The courses of our lives are governed by our choices, our human free Will, and they are guided by Fate, by a higher pattern of existence outside of our control. Death is the end of this life and it is not the end of who you are; part of you will cease to exist and part of you will move on and different aspects of you might go to different places.  All religions have irreconcilable, fundamentally different beliefs about walking a spiritual path and they all provide a map to the same enlightenment. And

Therefore, you can be a Christian, a Wiccan, a Buddhist, an atheist, a totemist, and an eclectic Whatever-ist — at once. There is no rule that says you cannot be both, and at least one rule (this one) that suggests you should. I consider my path of totemism to be a totally independent system of belief and  only one piece of a larger puzzle of understanding myself, the universe, and whatever is in between. 

Religion itself is simply a weird byproduct of human culture, used to control and confuse the populace, that should be regarded as both dangerous and silly. And it is an important aspect of being human that is a fundamentally necessary and sacred part of who we are. The Lakota Heyota, the “contraries” who were clowns and spirit-men who walked backwards, understood this. Respect religion— and laugh at it.

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