Back in December John Halsted wrote “TheFirst Commandment of Paganism: “Thou Shalt Not Judge” (and whythis is a problem)”, a brilliant, controversial piece that you should read if you aren't familiar with it. I've been thinking about the piece in detail for a few days now and decided there are some points that are worth sharing.
Actually that's my first point. I read the piece, I reacted to it in the privacy of my own mind, I straightened my thoughts out till I was happy with them and no longer in the position of sensitively clinging to them, and now I'm releasing them to a wider audience for their review and potential feed back. As a writer, this is a process I am intimately familiar with and used to.
First I write. Then, I adjust, review, and attack it with my own internal critic. I consider it's merit—and sometimes it's only meant for me or a small audience. Sometimes it's ready, but I'm too emotionally invested in it to stand critique.
Sometimes hours and sometimes months after creation, I release my writing for others to consider. I can of course continue to write and adapt my style on me own in a void without other input, but for the most part, I've grown the most in my writing and thought patterns through comments and suggestions from others.
I think the process merges perfectly with one's ability to evaluate others religious experiences.
That said let me drop a few disclaimers:
1 .Writing revision is not always done alone. Sometimes writing is done in teams or small groups where they limit judgment to help to improve the creative process and encourage each other to come forward with authenticity. To me, this is where/how we create safe spaces to listen to experiences of others without deconstructing. There is definitely a place in the process for safe space—I just do not belief this space should be the end goal or the default.\
2. Not all critics are equal. Just because someone has feedback for you does not make it valuable on the face of it. I might encourage people to listen to all the feed back but that's not the same as incorporating it all. Even a qualified person may not have feedback that is relevant to your interpretation or experience, which is cool. Sometimes all we are meant to take from critique is a better understanding of what we emphasize and what others emphasize.
3. There does need to be space between ritual and critique. Creating and performing group ritual is a leap of faith and trust. Creating solitary ritual can be a leap in faith and trust. Beyond that, ritual is a living breathing thing. It doesn't just happen and release immediately. It needs time to be and do. I've had rituals that felt like duds or felt stilted in performance but were powerful in return. Perhaps I wasn't meant to have my moment of the profound in ritual, but to experience it in pieces in my actual life. I've had experiences that were profound and continued to be deeply impacting for months afterward. How could I have given a constructive critique right off the nose? Further, though this has never happened for me, I am willing to believe that I could be part of a ritual with deep meaning for another that has no meaning for myself. And I am more than willing to perform work that is transformative for another with no benefit for myself, actually opening a ritual up to feed back so I know what another experienced would for me, be helpful to know what I'm doing “right” or “well” for them as well as myself. I would think instead of forbidding critique each group needs to state a time when they will be open to receiving said information. Or, if ritual is too personal to give feedback on directly, perhaps work-shopping past formats or generic formats for ritual.
We as pagans do not like to censor. We do not like to shut others down. I've often gotten the impression from pagans that we believe the judging state is a lower state of mind we have risen above. To facilitate this 'upward' movement, we tell ourselves lies like 'what does it matters if Bobby Q Crazy believes or does that in his practice?' he isn't hurting me. This statement IS NOT universally true and without critical review there is no way to discern which is harmless difference and which is dangerous.
To take from P. Sufenas Virius Lupus comment below John's writing he offers: “Three people see the same person walking toward them. A police officer describes them as "a mid-forties Asian male of average height and weight." A student describes them as "that quirky biology teacher who wears bow ties and sings Led Zeppelin tunes while doing labs." A daughter describes them as "daddy." All of them are right. All of them are interpreting this person based on their own experiences (or lack thereof) with them, their feelings about them, and so forth. If you started to criticize the daughter's description as incomplete or not the best interpretation because it's too personal and puts too much emphasis on her prior experiences with that person, and thus her biases and "orthodoxies" (so to speak!) that are based in her own particular context--i.e. the "echo chamber" of family life for her, her parents and siblings--how can that feel like anything other than critiquing her long history of experience with that person (who is her father)? “
I agree with his point, and in the case if these three perceptions all are true and acceptable and safe. While there might be further discussion with the daughter on what else “daddy” is or is not, and there might be discussion on what each job means to each person, no individual is wrong or should be scolded or whatever negative it is we're worried about happening.
I'd like to extend the example so I can highlight the potential for danger. What about the police officer's partner who saw the mid-forties Asian male of average height and weight with a weapon in his hand, who may or may not act based off of the perception of a weapon? Are we supposed to wait until the officer shoots and hurts someone to address his mistaken impression (assuming it's mistaken, which based off the three other witnesses who mention nothing in the man's hand, its safe to at least consider)? Granted in this scenario, there may be no other option, but this isn't the case in faith. We don't have to wait until someone does something extreme to intervene. We can not be so afraid to judge or interpret a person's experience that we don't step in when what the person is saying may lead to self harm, or dangerous action. Granted, we might have a long debate on what is harmful action. I suspect the pro and con modern medicine folks have a lot to work out before we can set real guidelines.
I further suspect that mental stability is very touchy in the pagan community and as such plays a complicated role in judging or not judging others experiences. Mental illness and the pagan community are not topics I'd like to combined into subject matter for group sharing at this point in my thought process because I'm certain to bungle it terribly. I will say that mental health and paganism has been muddy waters in great quantity because we as a community were misunderstood by the larger modern society, a problem the psychological community is still rectifying, but that doesn't mean that paganism doesn't have it's share of truly mentally ill people whom I worry we don't provide the correct support for.
Another argument I hear a lot to critically discussing religious experience is “who are you to tell me what I saw/heard/felt/know”. I am no one in particular. I consider myself someone with above average intelligence, good listening skills, and sometimes good insight, but I don't have like a special license or qualification for it. Still, we seek advice from unqualified people all the time. I talk with strangers fairly often in line to check out or while looking at items and ask them for advice on clothing or where to go to find X kind of food and do they like their dance instructor and tell me more about their home school program. I know this is all minor stuff, but I've had strangers come up to me and tell me their mother passed a week ago and they are having trouble dealing with it, or that they are pregnant they don't know what to do or that they're taking care of their kid's baby and their kid is into drugs and they don't know what to do. You do not always have to be qualified to help and sometimes as apparently was the case for these people who chose to confide in me, being silent was more damaging than sharing with another person.
What's key here is that I did not go to these people and demand they share and I never claimed authority when talking to them. They came to me and laid their situation out in the open with little more than a pleasant greeting to grease the wheels. People need and want feedback and will take it from almost anyone in desperation. I think the way we present the space to offer feedback, the polish of the feedback we give so it can be critical but not cruel, thoughtful but not condescending, compassionate but firm is far more important and interesting a conversation than whether or not we should judge others.