‘Religioning’ and the Birds of Rhiannon

Mar 7th, 2018 | By | Category: Articles
Jennifer Uzzell 'Religioning' and the Birds of Rhiannon

This is “Mrs Bird’. She is quite hard to spot, in the middle of the only bit with no snow!


A number of scholars of religion, including Douglas, Ezzy and Graham Harvey, are starting to use the word ‘religion’ as a verb as much as a noun.


The influence of Post Reformation Protestant theology has led to an assumption in the Industrialised West that religion is primarily concerned with acquiescence to a set of propositional beliefs. One of the key Christian religious practices, after all, is to recite the Creed (from the Latin Credo: ‘I believe’.) There is, however, a growing voice within Religious Studies that asserts that for most ‘religions, at most times, and in most places (and arguably even for most Western Christians) belief is not the most important aspect of religion. Douglas Ezzy defines religion as essentially a set of ritual and other practices that allows a person to live a ‘life with soul’, that is a life that is experienced as worthwhile and meaningful. For Graham Harvey, the emphasis is on negotiating a network of relationships with human and ‘other than human’ persons around us. Neither of these definitions necessitates belief in ‘supernatural’ or ‘spiritual’ beings, although it certainly does not preclude such belief. This way of looking at religion as something we do as opposed to something we believe opens up the possibility of looking at elements of life that might not previously have been considered as ‘religious’ (such as, for example, music and sport) in a new way. It also opens up a new way of looking at ritual, not as a set of symbolic actions that point towards particular beliefs, but as actions that are powerful and transformative in and of themselves, regardless of the individual beliefs of the participants.


What this means for public ritual within Druidry is something I will explore in future blogs, for now I would like to look at its relevance to me personally with regard to day to day practice. What does ‘religioning’ look like to me at this particular moment?


I would like, for now, to concentrate on Harvey’s idea of religion being about our negotiated place in a network of beings. I am still very unsure of my belief about the objective reality of God or of individual gods and goddesses; and of the relationship between those two concepts. I certainly have what I would regard as suspicions, but after 30 odd years of degree, masters and doctoral level work in religion, not to mention teaching RE in secondary schools and contributing to RE at a national level, I still have nothing approaching certainty. But here’s what I do know; when I behave in certain ways, when I am doing what feels like the ‘right’ thing to do, the universe has an odd habit of co-operating. Random meetings with people or responding to unexpected emails lead me down rabbit holes that take me to good, or at least useful places. Methodologically, this could be referred to as ‘ludism’ or playfulness; to act ‘as if’ something is true and see what follows from that.


In my last blog post, I described the rituals that I, personally, engaged in at Imbolc. Effectively this was a good example both of ludic methodology and of ‘religioning’; acting ‘as if’ Brigit/Brigantia exited as a real ‘other than human’ person with whom I could enter into a reciprocal relationship, and to engage in versions of traditional Imbolc rituals not because they pointed towards a set of beliefs as such, but because they connected me to generations of my ancestors who had dome similar things at similar times; and because they felt like meaningful things to do. They were ‘good to think’.


Last time I wrote, I reported that a bird presented itself the next morning by my car, and that I had fed it. The picture at the top of the blog is of ‘Mrs Bird’ as she has come to be known. (She, is, you will note, a blackbird and not, as I originally thought’ a thrush.) Mrs Bird has appeared ever since, almost every time my car pulls into the drive, usually landing right next to the passenger door and sometimes following me onto the doorstep (this requires careful management due to the psychopathic cat on the other side of the door). You cannot see her well in the picture, she is right in the middle of the only patch where there is no snow, probably because its warmer on her feet and easier to find the food!).


It feels to me (note I do not say ‘I believe’…that would be far too strong) that Mrs Bird’s arrival is a gentle nudge from Brigid as to what she wants from me in return for the blessing I asked for on my household. A real commitment to ‘live in community’. For me this has now taken two forms…one is a sustained commitment to provide not only for Mrs Bird, but for the many other birds that frequent my garden (usually in the back, rather than mobbing my front door), the squirrels, foxes, hedgehogs and whatever else is wandering through. My house and garden form an ecosystem and while I have an element of control over it, I also have a responsibility towards it.


One of the Imbolc traditions I came across was to invite the poor of the village in to share in a feast. My approximation of this was a vow to make a substantial contribution to the local foodbank collection point. This is something that I have regularly thought about, but, like many I suspect I either forgot or decided that I needed to be careful with money and so ‘couldn’t afford to.’ It’s very easy to come to this conclusion. Money is not in abundant supply at the moment and as a self-employed person some years are definitely better than others and the coming year is unlikely to be one of the better ones. Don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about huge sums here, and neither am I taking about serious financial hardship, nowhere near what many experience, certainly. I am talking about small but regular food donations even when I feel less confident about spending extra money, and about feeding the wildlife in my garden as ways of ‘religioning’ that I want to develop this year. I intend to act ‘as if’ these practices are the fulfilments of a vow and to see where that takes me. In mythology, some say blackbirds are the birds of Rhiannon, in my garden at least, they may also be the birds of Brigit!

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