John Michael Greer is the Guest of Honor at the launch of Paganicon this weekend. He will be giving a keynote address at 8pm Friday night, to open the event. I got the opportunity to interview him, and listened spellbound to his articulate thoughts. I first asked about the path that brought him to be Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA). He treated me to his personal history from age 10, fascinated with UFO’s, Unexplained Mysteries, Magic, and reading the Lord of the Rings. He said he was a boyhood, “Geek before being a geek was fashionable.” His many books are references that are a must for every bookshelf. He is a gentle, polite, and soft-spoken man, but one with a passion, clarity, and eloquence that show through his writing, and promises a keynote address, not to be missed! His areas of mastery and expertise are lengthy, varied, and impressive. If anyone can be called a Pagan Visionary, I would say it is John Michael Greer.
What can you say about your keynote address Friday night at Paganicon?
There are two ways you can take a talk about Paganism and the future. One is what is going to be the future of Paganism, the other is how is Paganism going to deal with the broader future, that is breathing down our necks at this point. I will be talking about both. We are moving into a future that a lot of people are going to find very challenging, especially if they have bought into the attitude, that “Our ancestors were stupid. We are smart, and we are going to go zooming off to the stars. We know the truth, and no one else has ever done so.”
This is what I call the mythology of progress, and I use that term very literally. I think progress is the religion of today. It is where we place our hope of salvation. It is where we place our sense of meaning. It fills all the roles that faith, that medieval Catholicism filled in the life of the average medieval peasant. That is a problem because we are very close I think to the end of progress. It is heretical to say, but I think progress is drawing to a close. There are still a few branches of science and technology that have some room to grow, but in very many of them we have reached the point where any further advances are going to involve a fantastic investment of money and resources that we don’t have anymore.
This is like a medieval peasant looking up in the sky and suddenly discovering that God, and Heaven, and the Saints and Angels, are not there anymore, a traumatic experience! I think a lot of people who think they believe in other religions actually put their faith in progress, are facing a shattering loss of faith, and a very challenging time. What gives life meaning, if we are not headed off to some grand destiny among the stars?
Are spiritual people the ones to help others get through these times?
A lot of people who consider themselves very spiritual right now, are busy convincing themselves that the world is going to come to an end on December 21st , 2012. Now it is not, but, the fact that so many people are fixating on that, or on the ‘singularity’, or any excuse to bring an end to history before history pops the bubble of our fantasies of progress. A lot of people who think of themselves as very spiritual, as believing in some religion, are believers in progress. There are a lot of Christians, who think of themselves as Christians. who are actually believers in progress, as are certainly a lot of Pagans. There are many who don’t really believe in any religion, who don’t buy ‘progress’ any more. They in some ways will be in much better shape than the believers who find themselves with progress collapsing under their feet.
What will happen to all the people who have lost a connection to the land, and living simply if they don’t figure this out?
It is a complicated question, and it will vary dramatically from place to place. One of the reasons that my wife and I moved to a place, a little red brick milk town in the Appalachians, was precisely that we thought it was time to get out of the urban cores. Out of the suburbs, out of the exurbs, out of the parts of the country that were hooked into this temporary global economy.
Do you live as sustainable a life as you can?
We are working toward it! One of the other reason we moved, is we could afford to buy a house here. For the first time in our lives we actually own a house, and are in the process of doing all the sustainability stuff that I learned to do back in the 70’s and 80’s. The insulation, the weather-stripping, and the caulking. We have a big organic garden in the back of course, and we have the compost. It is not something you can do instantly, if you have a living to make. We are proceeding step by step. Within in a decade or so, I expect our house to be way up there in terms of sustainability retrofit. We also chose a town that has a community. The local Masonic lodge is a very active part of the scene. It is large, and busy, and has some younger members, and that is something I appreciate. I am a Freemason, and there are towns where Masonry is doing very well.
In your workshop on Mesocosm description, you imply that in that place between is where magic can be effective in the world ?
What I am implying is that, it is like the man who discovered that all his life he was speaking prose, we have all been using mesocosms all along. Say you have an altar that you set up with various sacred things upon it. You need a new job so you get a green candle and you dress it with a drawing oil, and sprinkle some money drawing herbs on it, and you carve various things on it. You burn it on a Friday night. You do all these things because the candle, the altar, and everything to do with it is a model of your life, this is a mesocosm. It is a symbolic representation, it is not just inside your head. It is not out there in the universe, it is in between. Taking the mesocosm and changing it, we cause change to echo into both directions. Change within the self, the microcosm, and out into the macrocosm.
So it is not a purely intellectual thing, nor a ritual to heal the earth?
No, You can do ritual to heal the Earth using a Mesocosm, but the Mesocom is where we make change with magic, where we make things happen. In any magical ritual, you are establishing a model of the cosmos, and then changing it. It is a way of looking at what we are all doing anyway. There is a consistent habit within the Druid scene, of thinking in threes. One of the exercises that used to be used in the old French Druid scenes in late 19th century is that they would teach you to take any binary pairing that you saw, polar opposites, and find the place between, the third. There is always a third. First you start, OK, there is a third. Then you look to see where the third may lie. It can be right between, or off to one side or another. You learn to go from an unresolved binary to a balanced ternary, a three-fold pattern. Once you do that, you un-stick the opposition and things can start moving again. It breaks up clogs. We get stuck in this thing. There is the broad universe out there, or our internal universe, and it easy to feel very detached from that world out there. To think entirely in opposition between matter and the spirit. We have the mind and the cosmos out there. The more we fix it on the opposition between the more distant they seem between one another. Where is the third, the third factor? There is the mesocosm, the symbolic representation of reality. It faces both ways and you can use it to interface between the two.
How can urban Pagans connect with the kind of magic inherent in the natural world?
Here is one of those binaries, ‘Nature’ and the ‘City’. Towns, villages, communities are natural for human beings. We carry our weight in nature everywhere with us, the human body. Nothing is un-natural. When we set up the idea that something we do is unnatural we are trying to say that we are separate from nature, and we are not. There is one place to start, to remember that everything is part of nature, and that if we choose to do something that is self-defeating or self-destructive, such as build our whole future on non-renewable resources, well that is natural, too. Yeasts do it all the time, and then they die.
Nature is not cuddle some, it is not a care bear. Nature brings you into being and then it takes you. Nature is taking care of it. I don’t think we can actually be out of balance, we just don’t see the balance. The pendulum swings one way, and then back, and the laws of nature always apply.
Hoodoo in particular has a very strong urban component. Modern Hoodoo came into being in cities especially in the American South that had a large African-American population. In the early and middle twentieth century is was standard in many areas for hair dressers to go to people’s houses, rather than a salon. Many of those hair dressers were African-American women. They would visit their clients, do their hair and sell them oils and potions, and a mojo bag. An amazing number of middle Americans of many ethnicities were actually practicing Hoodoo. They got their supplies from their hair dressers. It was integrated into the culture, it is simply we pretend we are not part of nature. We have created this urban fantasy, this matrix fantasy. We are cyborgs, detached and electronically hooked up. Pale, hairless and floating in tanks. That is not true. Everyone one of us is integrated with nature, at every moment, even in the biggest city in the world. It is a matter of paying attention to the connection that exists. Making room for the rest of nature that is around us at every moment.
In turbulent times, is how our lives are interconnected through economics, politics, and society, part of the magic you talk about.
Mixing magic and politics is a very explosive brew! Most people who have tried it have ended up in very ugly places. I am a religious leader. I am the head of a religious organization, I am clergy, I marry people. I take the separation of church and state very seriously because I realize it is not there to protect the state, it is there to protect spirituality. The individuals who are out there trying to push their religious traditions into political practice will learn from history. You start out with telling the politicians what to do, and then it a very short time it is the other way around with the politician telling the religions what to do. That is not a good place to be! As a religious leader it is not my place to tell people what to do about politics. It is my job to keep my mouth shut. That is something I wish religious leaders on all sides of the political spectrum would consider doing. Concentrate on doing what we should be doing.
We all do live in a very political world. We are all influenced by politics. We all have a lot of hard decisions to make. For the last thirty years or so, there has been a lot of wealth, privilege, and abundance. The way we got out of the energy crisis of the 70’s is absolutely typical. Once we got the Alaskan pipeline open, we started pumping oil off the north slope like there was no tomorrow! We flooded the world oil market, and crashed the priced of oil. We got thirty years of joy ride out of it. We burned through the remaining oil that could have cushioned the transition to sustainability. We don’t have that option now.
As the political process becomes very dis-functional and the process is heating up in some explosive directions, people are realizing the joy ride is over. Our thirty year vacation from reality is over. People are very angry, and particularly angry because most of them realize to some extent that they cooperated with that delusion. We all have many challenging decisions to make. I don’t think any of the existing political alignments or existing attitudes are really dealing with the situation that we are in.
As a spiritual leader, is helping people get in touch with nature, and their spirituality the best way to help people cope with these challenges?
In my specific position, as a religious leader, as a social critic, a writer, and a teacher, it is my job to make sure people are empowered in a variety of ways. That they can shake themselves out of that automatic sound bite repetition that passes as thinking these days. That they have the tools to get some clarity within their own consciousness. To act effectively, upon themselves and on the world. My job is to empower people, give them tools and knowledge, and give them a perspective that is different from the stuff they are going to get on the appalling travesty that passes for media these days.
Paganicon has at the door registration available until full.
John Michael Greer’s published and forthcoming books include:
Paths of Wisdom: Cabala in the Western Tradition (Llewellyn, 1996)
Circles of Power: Ritual Magic in the Western Tradition (Llewellyn, 1997)
Inside A Magical Lodge (Llewellyn, 1998)
Earth Divination, Earth Magic: A Practical Guide to Geomancy (Llewellyn, 1999)
Natural Magic (Llewellyn, 2000; reprinted as The Encyclopedia of Natural Magic, 2005)
Monsters (Llewellyn, 2001)
The New Encyclopedia of the Occult (Llewellyn, 2003)
Learning High Magic, with Carl Hood Jr. and Clare Vaughn (Weiser, 2004)
A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism (ADF Press, 2005)
The Academy of the Sword by Gerard Thibault (translation; Chivalry Bookshelf, 2005)
Druidry: A Green Way of Wisdom (Weiser, 2006)
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies (Element, 2006)