Paganism: Some Questions
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.