Syncretic Electric: Some Questions for Pagan Identity

Plato, Paolo Veronese, c. 1560

Plato, Paolo Veronese, c. 1560

Please, ask yourselves: What does it mean for me to be Pagan? This looks like a simple and straightforward question that you can answer quickly and glibly, but I encourage you to spend some time with it. I suspect that some of you might be surprised by your eventual answers.

Repeatedly, we are told that we, as Pagans, are all under the same umbrella, or that no two Pagans believe the same thing. But what does this actually mean? How different from each other are we, and if we are so different, why are we all clustered together? What good does this grouping serve us? What do we gain from all being Pagan? What price are we paying ?

Perhaps, even further: Why is it important for me to be Pagan? What about the term Pagan describes my experience? Why did I come to Paganism in the first place? Why am I Pagan at all?

In the midst of all of the discussions surrounding Pagan identity and theology, I am going to suggest that Paganism, collectively, may have nothing to do with theology at all. Perhaps, when we identify as Pagan, we are not actually making a profession of faith. Perhaps, when we identify as Pagan, we are instead talking about a certain kind of lifestyle.

Perhaps Paganism isn’t a collection of religions, but a certain way of being in the world. Perhaps being Pagan means that we have chosen to experience the world differently than the larger society expects us to.  Perhaps, Paganism has become a political position, rather than a religious one. If this is the case, then our doctrinal disputes over what constitutes proper Paganism are null and void.

However, if this is the case, then we also need to come together and figure out just what the Pagan lifestyle actually constitutes. What differentiates the Pagan way of being from society at large?

This is why I have suggested these questions. I believe that if we look to what attracted us to Paganism in the first place, if we look to those elements of Paganism that we love and that keep us here, then we will begin to gain a better understanding of what being Pagan really means.

I think that we make a great mistake when we consider Paganism only as a set of religions. Over the years, an infrastructure has been built up: we not only have festivals, but we have communities and institutions developing. Do we really think that liturgy alone is driving this progress?

We are, whether we admit it or not, developing a Pagan culture. This, I think, is the context in which discussions of Pagan identity should be understood. What does Pagan culture constitute? How is our ephemeral online culture different from our physical one? How do these two elements interact? What are the ramifications of thinking of Paganism as a culture rather than as a set of religious movements?

If we are a community, then we do have the right to police our boundaries. However, before we can determine who is and who is not Pagan, or what constitutes a true and proper Paganism, we need to come to an understanding of just what being Pagan implies. Focusing solely on theology has failed to provide us with a path forward, and far too often, we allow our personal attachments to color our responses. I believe that an understanding of Paganism requires us to step back and look at more than just the religious elements of Paganism, but also its personal, political, and cultural components.

I believe that by taking some time individually to sit and consider what Paganism means to us, why we were drawn to Paganism, and why we are still here, we will gain a deeper understanding of our relationship to each of the various components of the Pagan lifestyle. From there, I feel that we will be much better equipped to enter into the larger discussion surrounding Pagan identity. As we talk together, I suggest that we will eventually be able to come to a communal understanding of Paganism and the Pagan worldview. Doing so, however, requires us to leave some of our own personal desires and attachments behind and to come to the conversation with an open heart and an open mind.

It may be that we discover that Paganism no longer serves us, and that we have nothing more to contribute to the community. There is no harm in that realization.  However, I do hope that we can let go without malice or anger, and that those who witness our departure do so with grace and understanding. I do believe that community is important, but community is also a lot of work. We need to take the time to recognize ourselves in relation to the community. We need to be aware not only of how the community is changing, but also of how we are changing. By understanding our personal and collective relationships, I believe that we will come to understand just what Paganism represents.


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

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.

  • kenofken

    I don’t think we ever will come to any consensus on any collective and precise definitions of what constitutes paganism or pagan culture. In fact, the harder we try, the less agreement we find. I have come to believe that this is a feature, not a bug of the movement. A lot of people say we can’t define it because we haven’t done enough legwork in liturgy, theology, institutions etc.

    I don’t thing that’s the case. I think it’s something much more like a fundamental about what we are. Something akin to the fundamental properties of matter which prevent us from defining the momentum and velocity of an orbiting electron simultaneously. The borders of our own movement are very much like those electron orbitals and clouds in some sense. We can describe many things inside the borders and predict what the outer region might include, but it defies resolution.

    Another scientific analogy might be that of resonance structures in organic chemistry. The professors used to make us draw out the different “forms” of a molecule which showed what would happen if the electrons went “there on that atom” instead of “here on this bond.” It was conceptually useful but descriptively useless. The real molecule was neither this or that resonance form. It was something that had the character of this one and that one, and unlike either. Something we could only approximately define visually.

    All that said, without attempting to define paganism, we can describe some common threads that seem to run through it. If I had to pick a few characteristics of paganism (as I observed them), I would say an emphasis on personal gnosis, experiential interaction with the divine and a deep sense of connection and interconnectedness with all of creation coupled with a sense of enchantment.

    • Julian Betkowski

      That’s why I suggested looking at culture, rather than specific religious/liturgical models.

      • kenofken

        True. I’m not sure that’s much easier to nail down though. We can do a lot of descriptive work about “pagan culture”, but I’m not sure that gets us to the point where we can say “x, but not y” is pagan.

        • Julian Betkowski

          Well, we have to start somewhere. At the very least, it would help us to have some kind of understanding of our movement.

          • kenofken

            What might make a good starting point? Pagan culture is a big topic. Festival culture? Music, political activism, online?….

            • Julian Betkowski

              I don’t think it particularly matters where we start. We just need to be willing to have these conversations without stopping every time someone decides to take great personal offense at whatever is being said. It seems like a good deal of the umbrage that surrounds these sort of conversations is engineered to just shut down the discussion rather than to correct actual wrong doings.

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