This is a difficult book to read. Both in the sense that it requires a lot of mental effort, and in that it tackles some difficult issues in a sometimes uncomfortable way. It basically tells you that if you are living in a modern western culture, you are probably NOT living with honour...but I'll get back to that in a minute.
The first time I read this book, I did so over the course of about a month in lots of short chunks. By the time I had reached the end, I knew I hadn't 'gotten' it. I didn't really understand what she meant by “living with honour”. So I went back through the book again, skimming this time, to try and form a more coherent picture of the book. Orr's view of honour is actually deceptively simple, and flows quite naturally out of her world view. In a nut shell, if all nature is sacred, then to live with honour means living in a way that acknowledges and respects the unique soul-songs of all beings, while simultaneously being aware of the interconnectedness of all things. “Honour is achieved when we acknowledge our free will, with the courage to be honest, with responsibility for our actions, with the respect that allows loyalty and generosity, knowing we are all utterly and irrevocably connected” (p. 139). It's about relationship. It's simple, beautiful, and makes perfect sense from an animistic, nature-based Pagan world view.
The difficulty comes in applying this ethic in a culture that is based around an entirely different world view. In the book, Orr spends a bit of time exploring our modern western, Judeo-Christian based culture and it's ethics, and contrasts it to Pagan ethics. She then discusses the implications of Pagan ethics to modern issues such as suicide, fertility treatments, animal testing, eating meat, capitalism, globalization, overpopulation, and so on. And if you accept her premise that nature is sacred, and that living honorably means having responsible and respectful relationships with nature, it's hard to argue with any of her conclusions on these issues. But it's also equally hard to actually apply and live by these ethics. Orr herself admits this....“ I am not righteous in my own position. For I too live as part of Western culture...”. Western culture is, in it's current state, antagonistic to the Pagan ethic that Orr describes.
It would be lovely to dream about what the world would look like if the Pagan ethic outlined in this book were the dominant ethic. It would certainly be a different world. But a more practical exercise would be to figure out how the heck to apply the Pagan ethic to the world we are currently living in. It really seems like the only way to live with honour is to drop out of western society all together and form a counter-culture of like minded folks. But if you find that a bit extreme, Orr discusses an alternate route that consists largely of thinking very carefully before we make any sort of decision, aware that our culture is hostile to our values. We can vote with our money, for example, by carefully researching all of our purchasing decisions to make sure they meet our standards of ethics. We can question whether we actually need to purchase something at all. We can do our best to craft honourable relationships. But even this, she acknowledges, is not easy, and her book is a call to rise to the challenge.
Personally, I agree with Orr's world view, but admit that I'm definitely not living up to her ethics. And I don't think I'm prepared to drop out of western society entirely. I will, however, use the ideas in this book to make some changes. I am definitely going to focus on creating more respectful relationships with others (be they human or not). As Orr points out, every action creates ripples, so small changes may lead to larger changes. Orr's ethic focus on establishing honourable relationships, and then acting in a way that is harmonious with those relationships. Just as with building any relationship, this can't happen overnight.
I would like to close this with a passage from the book that particularly struck me:
“It is because it is not always (or often) easy that we speak of *Pagan honour using key words – courage, generosity and loyalty – drawn from the heroic tales of our Western Pagan heritage. In each of the old stories, the hero is seeking something magical, something ordinary that, drenched in the sacred, is extraordinary. Whether a golden fleece, a cauldron or grail, an ancient ring or even home and tribe, each hero is compelled by their own quest as a warrior in search of some quality of immortality. Yet the mythologies do not hold their validity in the detail: it is because the individual, whether part or fully human, finds the strength of his honour that the stories continue to shine with such poignancy, even after thousands of years. It is for that reason that they are still so important to Pagans. There is no single hero revered, one who sacrifices all for the people of his tribe: there are many heroes, each one finding the steps to do what is needed.” (p. 316)