Syncretic Electric: Community is More Than You

A Dedication to Bacchus, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1889

A Dedication to Bacchus, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1889

There has been a good deal of sound and fury recently over what legitimately constitutes a Pagan faith. I have to admit that I myself have been growing increasingly frustrated with a number of the antics going on in the online Pagan community of late, and I know that I am not alone.  Over and over again I have sung the praises of the variation and heterogeneity of Paganism. However, I have also warned against the increasing fractiousness of the community. I strongly believe that it is of utmost importance for us to figure out what exactly community means to us, what we want out of community, and most importantly, what we are willing to put in to it. If, as I suggested in my last post here, all we are looking for is a mutual appreciation society, then we really have no actual interest in building a religious community. Of course, I also have to wonder if we actually want a religious community at all.

At present, Modern Paganism is composed of a wide variety of faiths, many of which do share similar ideas, beliefs, and theologies. However, there are also a handful of movements clustering together under Paganism that seem to derive from other places, and yet still insist on calling themselves Pagan. Are we willing, when considering the Pagan community, to simply accept that we all claim the word Pagan as a sort of political bargain and nothing more? When we say Pagan, do we only do it for the sake of public opinion? Is Paganism just a way to talk politically about minority religious rights and nothing else? Given the way that the community is currently comporting itself, I have to wonder if this is not, in fact, the only legitimate use of the term at present.

I have to wonder if people’s attachment to the word Pagan has anything at all to do with the actual meaning of that word, and more to do with individuals’ own identity politics. Consider, there are many in the Pagan community who look down on the New Age community, despite the fact that there is a great deal of overlap between the two movements, and that they both emerged roughly contemporaneously from the same cultural milieu in the early twentieth century. For the outsider, it can be very difficult to discern the boundary between Paganism and the New Age movement, and yet we ourselves are often very careful to draw sharp distinctions between the two. Many Pagans simply do not wish to be associated with the New Age community, despite whatever similarities they may share, because of their own identity constructions. I have to wonder if some of what is currently going on in Paganism is not a result of similar political maneuvering.

Historically, the Pagan community has been very receptive and welcoming to new and different ideas, provided they were sympathetic to the basic Pagan worldview. I can understand, then, why people who are in the process of figuring out their own spirituality would be attracted to Paganism, and why they would come to feel so attached to such a community, particularly if they are emerging from a much more restrictive religious tradition. However, there is still a point at which people must recognize that by claiming membership to a community they are no longer entirely free in their movements, but reliant upon and bound to the demands, opportunities, and pressures of that community. Any community is allowed to police itself, to define its boundaries, and determine the qualifications for entrance. While you can call yourself whatever you like, you have no guarantee that other people will respect your identification. I could identify as Catholic, but seeing as I have never attended Catholic mass, do not believe in the trinity, nor accept divine salvation through the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, there is no reason for anyone else to respect my desire to claim membership to the Catholic religious community.

Theological discussions are increasingly difficult to have, particularly when disagreements only end in accusations of fundamentalism and erasure. Furthermore, a number of the permutations currently flourishing under the name Paganism are viewed by many as antithetical to the other faiths that have a longer historical usage of the term Pagan. If we are at a point when we can no longer even agree that we mean the same general thing when we say God, then perhaps we need to examine whether we really have any reason to claim membership to the same religious community. If, for one person, the Gods are discrete spiritual beings who exist independent of human action, and for another they are simply constructs of the psyche, or amalgamations of social energy, or even just nice poetic words, then there is very little room for actual conversation to occur. These ideas are not only antithetical, but are presently being viewed as heretical in opposition.

There is always going to be a difference between what you believe and what we believe. There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, I would argue that it is a sign of a healthy spirituality. However, there is something wrong with claiming that we are not allowed to question or criticize what you believe, particularly if it strikes us as too far out of the bounds of what we believe. This kind of dialogue is a good thing, because it forces all of us to examine are positions and assumptions, and perhaps you will realize that you made a misstep somewhere and return to us, or perhaps we will see that you have a valid interpretation that increases the boundaries of our belief. Or, perhaps we will come to feel that you are now too different to still claim membership to our community, and if you are unwilling to alter your ideas, then we are well within our rights to ask you to leave. Paganism is not just a word, it describes a community of religious practitioners. When you call yourself Pagan, you are claiming membership in that community and are making yourself beholden to it. Regardless of what Paganism represents to you, it extends beyond you, and you must be aware of the responsibilities that claiming membership to such a community entails.

I personally think that one of the important steps that needs to be taken in order to understand the Pagan community is to reflect upon the history of the movement, the forces that shaped its emergence, and the role that it plays in the larger social and religious milieu. I suspect that such an examination will be of great help in understanding what Paganism really means, and will help to distinguish Modern Paganism from other similar emergent faiths. In keeping with the project of my writing here, I shall be devoting my next several posts to exploring this topic, and hopefully shedding some light on the usage of the word Pagan, the evolution of the community, and of our future progress.

It is of utmost importance in this discussion to realize that simply because we may no longer be able to lay claim to the words that we have developed such a strong attachment to does not mean that our identities are being erased. Simply because we may find ourselves outside the bounds of Paganism does not mean that we no longer exist, just that we have more work to do figuring out our identities. Spirituality should never be easy. If we are struggling, then I firmly believe that we are on the right path. If we came to Paganism looking for nothing but a pat on the back, then we have very little to really offer the community as whole. We must be willing to work, to argue, to come together in understanding, and to sacrifice if we are going to truly build a Pagan religious community.


Syncretic Electric is published on alternate Fridays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

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About Julian Betkowski

Julian Betkowski is an artist currently living in Washington State and has been a practicing Pagan for the last ten years. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, with the intention of setting up a private counseling practice to serve the Pagan and Queer communities.


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