I want to make one more point about my use of runes and then I will move on. These days there’s a lot of loose talk from people about being spiritual, or wanting to be spiritual, often in the context of being spiritual but not religious (SBNR). I discussed this matter a long time ago: http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/spirituality/ and you might want to peruse that post before going farther here. SBNR makes no sense to me whatsoever. The core of religion is spirituality. It’s true that there are some churches that are not spiritual – maybe a great number. To my mind that means they are not religious either. You can’t have religion without spirituality. Of course, spirituality comes in a lot of flavors, and the spirituality of one church or religion may not be to your liking even though it is spirituality. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has its spiritual elements but they are so deeply embedded in (to my mind) ridiculous clutter, such as icons and magical practices and confessionals and whatnot, that it turns me off. I am a child of the Reformation and (wayward) adherent of John Calvin. I know many Catholics who are deeply spiritual: I cannot be one of them.
At heart, this matter comes down to is what you were raised with. My father was a Presbyterian lay preacher and I attended Presbyterian Sunday School and services throughout my boyhood, and, after a long absence during which I stopped thinking about spirituality, I passed the requisite exams and became ordained, and served as a Presbyterian pastor in rural churches for about 15 years. So, it’s not unreasonable to say I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian. Whether I attend Presbyterian services in the U.S., Scotland, Argentina, Australia, or England (all of which which I have), I always feel at home. I know what I’m doing and what the service is generally about. There are odd quirks and twiddles from place to place, to be sure, but I’m never lost or surprised, even if the service is in Spanish.
It’s not just that I am Presbyterian by upbringing, I am Scottish by birth. Even though I was born in Buenos Aires and I have a great affinity for Argentina and its people, my father was from Glasgow and I have a great number of family ties to Scotland and its culture. I’m perfectly at home in the Lowlands, even though I’ve spent little time there, and I have no trouble understanding (and writing) Lowland Scots – although I hesitate to speak it. I can, but it comes off sounding as if I am mocking or parodying the people I am speaking with. All of this means that when I want to delve more deeply into spirituality it’s more than a little absurd to start exploring the I Ching or chakras. I am neither Chinese nor Indian and what I know about these matters comes primarily from books. To be sure, I’ve lived in China and I have a halfway decent working knowledge of ancient Chinese philosophy, particularly of Laozi and the Tao Te Ching. But I’m not only a rank beginner when it comes to understanding Laozi, I doubt that I will ever get very far, no matter how much I study, because I was not raised Chinese. I lack the bedrock empathic insight (what Germans call Verstehen) that someone raised in Chinese culture can gain. Just take this passage from the opening of the Tao Te Ching:
道可道，非常道。名可名，非常名。Tào kě tào, fēicháng tào. Míng kě míng, fēicháng míng.
Don’t worry too much about the Chinese characters. The Pinyin following them gives a rough idea of pronunciation, and will also show you that there’s not much to it. It’s a passage referring to tào and míng. Look those words up in a Chinese-English dictionary and you’ll find they mean “path” and “name.” Add kě (“can”) and fēicháng (“exceptional”) and you’ll find yourself with nonsense. With a little help you might get to something like: “The path that can be trodden is not the true path. The name that can be named is not the true name.” That may begin to make a little more sense, but not much more. It starts you on a spiraling journey into the depths of ancient Chinese philosophy – What is the path? What is the name? Rotsa ruck. I’ve asked those questions for decades and am still hopelessly lost. To be fair, so are many native Chinese. But they, at least, have a firm place to start. I don’t. I’m mired in my Scottishness.
With runes I have a better shot because the runes are rooted in the Anglo-Norse heritage that I am part of – vaguely. Furthermore I’ve studied Viking and Anglo-Saxon history and lore, so I’m conversant with the general cultural milieu of runic writing. As a professional anthropologist and historian I feel that I have some kind of solid ground under my feet when I start exploring the runes, even though it may be more like quicksand than terra firma. The past is a foreign culture, after all. I have no doubt that I’d be as bewildered in a Viking mead hall after a battle as I would be in a Buddhist temple. But I believe I’d have a toehold with the Vikings, whereas with the Buddhists I’d have none whatsoever. It’s this toehold that gives me confidence that I can make some sense out of runic divination.
Runes, like Chinese characters, are not fixed in meaning, but are at the center of clouds of meaning that flow out from a central concept. I do feel very modestly confident that I can perceive the shape and feeling of that cloud when it comes to runes: much better than I can when it comes to Chinese characters. Thus, for example, my rune today was Gyfu – gift – shaped like an upper-case X. Somewhat like a Chinese character, the rune looks a little like what it symbolizes – two lines meeting in the middle. A gift unites two people in a bond. So, Gyfu refers to not only a gift but also what it entails – unity, friendship, kindness etc. etc. That gives me a starting point in contemplating what Gyfu might mean for me for today.
My point is that I feel at home with the runes in a way that I don’t with chakras and I Ching. That home could use a lot of straightening and organizing to feel really comfortable in, but at the very least it looks like a home. It’s not an igloo or a tent. It’s built of bricks and mortar.