Paganism: Some Questions

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Scott Reimers wrote on Patheos, suggesting that we stop using the word Pagan. In response, I reposted to Twitter and Facebook my non-creed “Pagan” which is a litany of things that make up my sense of my religion. In response to this, someone asked whether or not I felt the word Pagan served us well. This first long essay I wrote yesterday, and it raises many questions. This morning, I wrote part two, which feels more like an answer and an affirmation. If you only have time to wade through one essay, I recommend part 2.

art by Maxine Miller

Identity and identifiers are usually problematic. On one hand, labels are a way we try to communicate with others, conveying some snippets of who we are and what is important to us. On the other hand, the more we identify with anything, the less flexible our relationships become. I do not want to so firmly identify with anything that I close myself off to change.

When I first came to Paganism, it felt important to call myself a Witch. That identity was helpful for many years. It is rare these days that I feel like a Witch. My friends the root workers and conjurers feel much more like Witches to me, whereas in my life, mysticism has moved firmly to the forefront. Non-dualism is now the warp to which all the threads of weft weave themselves. Yes, I am still a polytheist. Yes, the Gods are honored in garden, in every toast, and every round of making love. Yes, I stir intention into my tea. Yes, I leave offerings to the house spirit who keeps the kitchen a happy place, and the Goddesses get a glass of wine when a fresh bottle is opened. These particulars could look like Witchcraft, I suppose, but they could equally look like – if not more so – traditional Heathen practices. And yet… mostly I connect to “Not this, not that” of the non-dual, and I commune daily with the Earth, and my body, and the alignment of my soul with my Will. Non-dualism is the core of my spirituality and polytheism is part of its practical expression.

All identities become problematic. Pagan is an umbrella term for me, even though my friend, the scholar Michael York is more accurate in naming it “paganisms”. But then, Christianity could more accurately be named christianities. The radical Catholics I get arrested with on occasion have less in common with your average Southern Baptist than I do with my Thelemic sisters or Heathen partner.

Every time I attend Pantheacon, which draws a huge array of traditions and practices, I wish for a large Venn Diagram to show that, while we don’t all overlap with each other, everyone overlaps somewhere, with some group that overlaps with yet another. Some people are polytheists, some polytheists are magick workers, some magick workers are monists or non-Deists… you see how the diagram might go. Something in us recognizes these overlapping circles of connection, and we are all in attendance for a reason, and not, as Scott Reimers posits, just by virtue of being “not Christian.” I don’t believe that for a minute.

One thing Mr. Reimers might be onto, that I think he was pointing to by use of the word “tolerance” is what Dr. Mihir Meghani said on the Hindu/Pagan dialog panel: we value pluralism. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be at a gathering as diverse as Pantheacon in the first place. We would only attend NOTOCON or Troth Moot or Merry Meet. We would stay in our various enclaves, never wishing to share our rituals, stories, and experiences.

The resonance I feel with the seekers and practitioners at Pantheacon is real. We aren’t just making nice for a few days. There is a commonality there that this Venn Diagram I so desire might be able to illustrate, even though not all in attendance would use the label “Pagan.”

Sometimes I quip that I long for the days when we were all just “the Occult” (another incomplete, problematic term) because we had to “hang together or hang separately” and resources were scarce. These days, there is a wealth of tradition, practice, theology, anti-theology, and ways of celebration. Thank the Gods. But this also can give rise to a rigidity. Some British Traditionalist Witches would prefer that self-professed eclectic Witches did not call themselves Wiccan. Some Wiccans don’t practice Witchcraft. Some Heathens would prefer those of us not dedicated to Asatru or Theodish belief would not honor the Northern Gods…and yet, while on the Hindu/Pagan dialog at this last Pantheacon, I inquired about non-Hindus honoring Ganesh, or Krishna, or Kali. The reply was basically this: “as long as you are respectful, and truly honoring the Gods, it doesn’t matter whether or not you call yourself Hindu.” These particular Hindus are happy to throw in their lot with those who call ourselves Pagan, sensing that, despite very real differences, our commonalities are more important.

Similarly, several months ago, I asked a German Witch, “Do Asatruar in Germany mind if non Asatru honor and have relationship with the Norse Gods?” She, swiftly navigating the Autobahn, replied, “No. All they care about is whether or not you are a Nazi!” In other words, they have bigger fish to fry.

Yes, we could just call ourselves by the names of our particular traditions – at least those with allegiance to particular trads could – but it feels helpful to have a larger presence in the world while we have bigger fish to fry, while we engage in the struggle to secure rights for the smallest sects among us. Biospheres thrive on diversity. Separation is important, but so is the coming together. Each sorrel, banana slug and Stellar Jay has its own mandate but is simultaneously part of the great ecosystem anchored by the California redwoods. Can Paganism(s) reflect this?

For now, I will continue to describe myself as a non-dualist and polytheist, a magick worker, a mystic, and a Pagan. Do any of these names matter? On one hand, not at all. But in a world where non-normative or socially less acceptable religious practices are persecuted against, it feels pretty important to stand up and be counted. Just as my sexuality or gender identity should not matter one whit in public, as long as transwomen are getting savagely beaten for trying to use a restroom in McDonalds while others stand by and allow it to happen, or worse, encourage the brutality, it matters a great deal.

Perhaps someday labels won’t be necessary. Suspicious as I am of the politics of identity, while a woman who belongs to the Church of the Subgenius gets her children taken away, or teens are harassed at school for wearing pentacles, I feel happy to call myself Pagan and stand tall with anyone who wishes to work toward a more inclusive, diverse, and pluralistic world.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter whether those people call themselves Pagan or not. But, I’m queer that way.

14 Responses to “Paganism: Some Questions”

  1. Ellie Di

    Thank you a million, zillion times for this (and the previous part). I’m nowhere near as involved in the Pagan “scene” as you are or as I used to be, but these questions and ideas and answers have plagued me for years. Thank you for putting my thoughts so beautifully into words. <3

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  2. Lady Jake

    Thank you, Thorn! I struggled over a reply (never published) to Reimers’ Patheos post yesterday, and am pleased to see that you have hit all the points with the wisdom and eloquence I come to expect from you. Many blessings!

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  3. Ian Phanes

    I agree with what you are saying here, and want to add an additional slant on it.

    My spiritual practices are multiple. I’m an initiate and practitioner of three different systems. Plus, I reverence various Welsh gods, Esu, Orphic gods, nature spirits, ancestors, etc. And I know I’m not unique in this. Many of us practice multiple traditions (though not everyone is quite as obsessive as me, fortunately). Some of them overlap practices with me, and also with people who don’t overlap with me.

    This, for me is the core reason why the term pagan remains useful, because it describes the complex milieu in which we interact. My summary of this is this: All real paganisms are spaghetti. This was true in ancient Greece and in ancient Wales. It is true today in India. And it is true once again in modern paganism.

    I believe that it is this interconnectedness and the cross-cutting ties that result that make events like PantheaCon “work”, and which make the word pagan remain both meaningful and useful.

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  4. lynn

    I identify as a pagan, but I don’t capitalize it. Capitalizing it gives me a rigid feeling, like my spirituality is being codified somehow. I am black, and it reminds me of the black power days of the 60s/70s when there was this sudden push to use a capital B for black people, and if you didn’t want to capitalize it you were seen as a bit of an Uncle Tom, not one with ‘the movement.’

    I realize I’m in the minority among Pagans for refusing to capitalize, but then again I’m a minority wherever I go so I’m used to it. After years of organized religion, I’m crafting my spirituality from the heart outwards, so I guess it’s part of my baggage to reject labels imposed by others.

    As far as other people go, they can call themselves whatever they want. :-)

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  5. Pitch313

    What feels the least like Paganism as I have come to know it, live it, love it, is the ones who hold to only doing it their way or taking the highway. Variety, differences, diversity, complexity–this sort of stuff doesn’t bother me. Spiritual and magical monoculture or mass production does.

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  6. kenneth macKillop

    I also attend Pantheacon in the spirit of ecumenism. If in a discussion of the Sea Side Gods i release my opinion concerning Sky Gods, we can agree to discontinue our conversation, but it is my prerogative to consider some Gods inimical to human weal and life, and if i talk to enough people i find like minded souls. In my FB feed, Covenant of the Goddess post a lot on science and the environment, articles i would not have found myself. A mystical experience of nature produces a myriad of re-actions. Some become as Wordsworth, pining for a brief numinous experience that is as much a part of childhood (however extended). I thank you Thorn, i had thought you were a witch, and find you no longer identify with that. I have a medical diagnosis that i have demedicalized into thinking of my cyclical thought patterns as being werewolf, tho my ancestors wd. have said berserker. Some of us change, and due to prejudices, we often are in isolation from one another. So I go to Reclaiming, because i believe in the community aspect of religion, and the Reclaiming community accept me. If the pentecostal christian community accepted me as I am, i may still be there. Among Christians, they seem most likely to believe in the actuality of witchcraft, and consider ill of it. I didn’t leave Christianity because of friction over witchcraft, but more abstractly, i cd. not belief in the God portrayed in Job. after a few years as an atheist (more properly anti-theist: god exists, and must be resisted) i drifted back to ‘paganism’ because my involvement w/ Tarot also re-awoke my awareness of the living Matrix (womb) of Nature, which awareness i consider central to being a witch, but other witches may disagree.

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  7. Karen

    I just finished listening to the Hindu-Pagan dialogue panel you recorded for your podcast, and was struck by 2 things:

    1. That here in the UK, there’s less of the fundamentalist kind of Christianity (which I often find myself judgmentally putting in quotes, because it is so alien to my liberal Anglican upbringing and later Quaker experience) that is a large chunk of American Protestantism, so that our experiences of being a minority religious grouping are fairly different, though they overlap to some degree

    2. That the observation that practice kind of trumps theology is found in very many Christian congregations. It’s weird insofar as organised Christianity tends to have very clear rules about who believes what and what is acceptable, and yet all of the Christianities I know of are a seething mass of disagreement amongst clergy and hierarchy, and a far more prosaic and practical attitude on a parish level. Most Christians are not theologians, and as you pointed out during the panel, there are priests and parishioners of all sorts of Christian sects whose deepest beliefs are manifested in their acceptance of others and their service to the community

    As a Pagan who attends Quaker Meetings, and has family members who range from lapsed Roman Catholic to devout liberal Anglican, from theist to non-theist, For a lot of Christians, I’d submit, their lived religious experiences are more varied and flexible than they might appear from the outside.

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